American Cancer Society Updates Guidelines for Mammogram Screenings

By Brenda Flanagan

It’s a very sensitive piece of anatomy, but women let radiology techs push, smush and irradiate it on a regularly scheduled basis for one reason.

“Because our lives are at stake. And because we know that, by getting screened, we are doing all we can to ensure our health,” said Kathi Wolder.

Wolder survived breast cancer. A mammogram caught it when she was just 42. The American Cancer Society updated its 2003 guidelines for women at the average risk for breast cancer, and now recommends that instead of starting regular mammograms at age 40, they can choose to wait until they’re 45 for their first mammogram. That astonished Wolder.

“I’m right in that gap. So I said to my husband, ‘If I waited til I was 45 to get a mammogram, I wouldn’t be here,'” she said.

The new guidelines also advise women get annual mammograms starting at age 45. They say at 55 women can continue with yearly screenings, or switch to every two years. The society studied and assessed new data.

“Did the very difficult job of balancing the benefits and harms, and that’s what led to the change in the guidelines that we’re publishing now,” Dr. Richard Wender, Chief Cancer Control Officer for the American Cancer Society.

“New research has helped doctors understand the best ways to use mammograms for screening,” said Director of Guideline Process, Kim Andrews.

“And these new guidelines really we think are going to confuse women,” said Tina Jacobs.

Jacobs is Community Health Director at Susan G. Komen in North Jersey. The group is absorbed in Breast Cancer Awareness Month activities, and says several other respected health care groups also publish mammography regimens — but with different timelines. Komen also disagrees with the Cancer Society’s new view that clinical breast exams are no longer needed. Jacobs suspected she had breast cancer after a self-exam.

“Luckily, I felt it. We had a sonogram, and it was discovered on the sonogram,” Jacobs said.

Komen expects many women may have trouble navigating all this conflicting expert advice.

“They’re really scared and they have no idea what to do. So they come to us. They come to us for help,” Jacobs said.

“I think that a lot of women are going to worry, ‘Will my insurance company cover this based on these new guidelines?’ Right now nothing’s changed with that,” said Susan G. Komen North Jersey Executive Director, Kelly Witkowski.

The Cancer Society advises insurance companies should cover mammograms starting at age 40, and says women at higher risk should discuss breast cancer screening with caregivers. But it warns, mammograms can give false positives, which require women to endure more tests and sometimes invasive biopsies.

“You should be screened when you need to be screened, but that’s a decision you should make with your healthcare provider,” Wolder said. “Guidelines be damned.”

In a survey of nine northern New Jersey counties, Komen asked its clients to identify their most crucial need. The answer? Education. The group will continue to recommend early and frequent mammograms.