Mammogram Benefits Overstated
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Mammogram Benefits Overstated

For years, women have been counseled that mammograms are the best way to screen for breast cancer. New reports from the American Cancer Society now say otherwise.

Mammograms are not the lifesavers doctors once thought. For more than 20 years, women 40 and older have been told to get the screening test annually to help detect early breast cancer. But now a government task force recommends that most women should start regular breast screenings at age 50, not 40.

"Mammography is best at finding cancers that are slow growing that would likely not cause death in the first place, but not so good at finding the aggressive cancers at a curable stage," says noted breast cancer expert Susan Love, MD, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation in Santa Monica, California. A recent analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that despite early detection, the incidence of aggressive -- and deadly -- breast cancers has not significantly decreased. "What has happened is that more and more women with nonaggressive cancer have been put through surgery, radiation, possibly chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy that they did not need," says Dr. Love.

So what does all this mean for you? For now, the American Cancer Society continues to urge women 40 and up to get yearly mammograms. In the meantime, researchers are now working on developing better screening tests. Dr. Love, for one, thinks it's high time we reevaluate mammography in terms of frequency and age. "The U.S. is the only country that recommends mammography screening in women under 50," she says. "There is still no evidence suggesting that screening younger saves lives. For women over 50, however, there is strong data that mammography every one to two years will reduce the chance of dying from breast cancer by 30 percent -- and that's a lot."

Talk to your doctor about what a mammogram can -- and can't -- do for you. "I hope that this information encourages more discussion between patients and doctors," says Therese B. Bevers, MD, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. "Doctors need to help women better understand their personal benefits and risks of screening depending on factors like family history and genetic mutations."

Originally published on, October 2009.