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Health Team

Some oncologists still recommend regular mammograms

Posted November 18, 2009 5:40 p.m. EST
Updated November 19, 2009 4:47 p.m. EST

— Gail Heath, a scheduling coordinator at Rex Hospital, has been fielding calls this week from many women asking if new breast screening guidelines mean they should cancel their appointments.

“We are telling our customers, we recommend that you move forward as always,” Heath said.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released updated guidelines this week suggesting women wait until age 50 for a mammography.

The new advice says:

  • Most women in their 40s should not routinely get mammograms.
  • Women 50 to 74 should get a mammogram every other year until they turn 75, after which the risks and benefits are unknown. (The task force's previous guidelines had no upper limit and called for exams every year or two.)
  • The value of breast exams by doctors is unknown. And breast self-exams are of no value.
  • The panel of doctors and scientists concluded that getting screened for breast cancer so early and so often leads to too many false alarms and unneeded biopsies without substantially improving women's odds of survival.

Three weeks ago, Heath, 47, felt a lump in her breast. She said a mammogram revealed a spot that wasn't there last year.

Heath was of average risk until the lump was found. Tests showed it was invasive.

Heath said she is glad she didn’t wait to get a mammogram.

“It would have been a larger tumor, and it maybe and possibly would have invaded more than it has,” Heath said.

Rex breast oncologist Dr. Lola Olajide says she understands the cost-benefit issues that lead the government panel to change mammography recommendations.

One-third of women do not get the recommended screening. Many women get false-positive results, leading to “invasive procedures that may not otherwise have been necessary and can sometimes result in significant complications,” Olajide said.

Olajide still recommends annual mammograms for women 40 and older, as do other major groups like the American Cancer Society.

“The rate of cancer, breast cancer specifically, has been declining in the U.S. over the last few years, and part of that is due to early detection by mammography,” Olajide said.