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A U.S. government task force has released new guidelines on how often women should get mammograms to test for breast cancer. The task force says for most women, mammograms should start at age 50, not at the previously recommended age of 40. Not everyone agrees with the new guidelines.
Breast cancer survivor Nancy Gaul is among those who take issue with the new U.S. government guidelines for women to begin routine mammograms at age 50, rather than age 40. "I am shocked by these guidelines because if I had not had a mammogram at age 40, I would not be here today," she asserts.
Mammograms are credited with helping to decrease the death toll from breast cancer. But the task force says its new recommendations will benefit women more -- cutting back on unnecessary tests and painful biopsies, and reducing over exposure to radiation.
"When screening beginning at 40 to 49, the benefits are smaller, the false positive rates are higher, than when screening at older ages," Dr. Diana Petitti explains. She is on the task force.
That is because younger women's breasts are more dense than older women's breasts and finding tumors in younger women is more difficult. The task force also recommends less screening -- every two years for most women after age 50 instead of every year starting at age 40. "Screening every two years captures most of the benefit in terms of reducing breast cancer mortality, while decreasing the harm," she states.
Specialists are split on the new guidelines which also recommend that doctors stop teaching women how to do self exams.
As for mammograms, Dr. Marissa Weiss says she will continue to tell her patients to have annual mammography starting at age 40. "The reality is breast cancer is the most common cancer to affect women. And mammography is the only test proven to save lives," she adds, "So I believe these guidelines are not an improvement, they're neglectful."
Dr. Susan Love is a prominent breast cancer specialist. She says mammography has never been shown to find breast cancer in a significant number of women under the age of 50.
"What we need to be doing is not using a test that doesn't work and has risks, but finding something that really does work or finding the cause of breast cancer and stopping it," Dr. Love said.
Groups such as the American Cancer Society disagree with the new guidelines. The society says it reviewed the same data the task force reviewed, plus data the task force did not consider, and will continue to recommend mammograms for women starting at age 40.
The American Cancer Society and other advocacy groups say they are concerned that in the U.S., at least, insurance companies will stop paying for mammograms for women under age 50.