As I'm sure many of you are aware, the US Preventive Services Task Force issued new recommendations yesterday regarding regular mammograms for breast cancer screenings. Among their recommendations are the following:
The USPSTF recommends against routine screening mammography in women aged 40 to 49 years. The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take into account patient context, including the patient’s values regarding specific benefits and harms.
The USPSTF recommends biennial screening mammography for women between the ages of 50 and 74 years. (Grade B recommendation)
The USPSTF recommends against clinicians teaching women how to perform breast self-examination. (Grade D recommendation)
For women like myself who were brought up to think that early detection saves lives, these guidelines are hard to accept. At first I was comforted by reading that they don't apply to women in high-risk groups. Then I learned that the high-risk group only included women "at increased risk for breast cancer by virtue of a known underlying genetic mutation or a history of chest radiation." Again, having been taught early on that a strong family history of breast cancer (even without the known genetic mutation) puts one in a higher-risk category, I was shocked to learn that even these people might be counseled to follow the new recommendations. So then I took a closer look at their reasoning.
Turns out the guidelines are based on the idea that routine mammograms for women in their forties (and yearly versus biennial mammograms for women in their fifties) can actually do more harm than good. In their words, "the USPSTF reasoned that the additional benefit gained by starting screening at age 40 years rather than at age 50 years is small, and that moderate harms from screening remain at any age." So we're looking at "small" vs. "moderate" here. These "moderate harms" include "psychological harms, unnecessary imaging tests and biopsies in women without cancer, and inconvenience due to false-positive screening results." They also determined that the number of lives saved by early screening is not enough to counterbalance these harmful effects. For women in their forties, one life is saved for 1904 women screened; for women in their fifties, one life is saved for 1339 women screened. This boils down to a 15% and 14% risk reduction, respectively.
Ok- I am by no means an expert, but I can tell you that I would much rather undergo the "inconvenience of a false-positive," or what turns out to be an unnecessary biopsy, rather than die of a tumor that could have been detected, had I only found the lump via a self exam or went in for a mammogram at age 48. I realize that the financial costs (in addition to the psychological costs) of unnecessary imaging tests and biopsies are high, and that one life saved for every 1904 women screened is a very small number. But, when that one life saved turns to be your mother, or your wife, or your best friend- or YOU- it seems a lot bigger, doesn't it?