The new mammogram guidelines emphasize that screening is a personal decision

The big story recently is that the American Cancer Society issued an updated guideline recommending that women undergo mammography less frequently than before.

This announcement was denounced on both “sides” of the perennial debate. Those in the “mammograms save lives” camp are outraged that a scientific society dedicated to cancer prevention and treatment would issue a proclamation that seems to run counter to the notion that “early detection saves lives.”

Those in the “putting scientific evidence in the forefront” camp are actually somewhat pleased that the ACS is finally “moving in the right direction,” but displeased that the society didn’t get all the way to the vicinity of, for example, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, which has the most heavily-weighted (and least stringent) screening mammography recommendations: for women at average risk (i.e., those that don’t have a mother or sister with breast cancer), start breast cancer screening at age 50 and get a mammogram every 2 years until age 74.

The new ACS guideline: Start screening at age 45 (well, 40 if you want to) and have mammograms annually until age 55, at which point you can go to every other year.

If a woman at average risk for breast cancer follows the USPSTF guideline to the letter (and is lucky enough to avoid a call-back: i.e., further looks for a possible abnormality), she’d have 13 mammograms over 25 years. If she follows the new ACS guidelines to the letter, she’d have 20 mammograms, possibly more. Of course, every mammogram not only increases the cumulative total of lifetime radiation exposure, it increases the odds that an abnormality will be found, and a call-back will be issued.

The best analysis regarding the new ACS recommendation (and actually, one of the best pieces about the whole breast cancer screening issue in general) is from FiveThirtyEight’s lead science writer, Christie Aschwanden, whose piece is titled, “Science Won’t Settle the Mammogram Debate.” Aschwanden correctly points out the right thing depends on you, the patient, and your values. There is no right answer.

For some, not getting mammograms annually (or even at all) is the right choice. For the rest, following the rules such as they are provides the best piece of mind.

And that’s OK.

Here’s the thing: Because choosing to have mammograms or not is a personal decision, we should refrain from blaming people who choose one way or the other. People have their reasons. As with many social and medical issues, the personal has become very political, because people’s beliefs are strongly held. Ultimately, a lot of economics is impacted by the politics here. Pro-screening partisans are always uneasy when edicts cutting back on screening are issued, because the fear is that the health care establishment (i.e., insurance companies) will stop covering the tests.

That’s simply not going to happen with mammography.

If we strip the emotion out of the issue and just try to stick to facts, what, at heart, is undergoing a mammogram like?

This video comes from the the U.K.’s Cancer Institute. It’s just more than a minute, and is very matter-of-fact.

John Schumann is an internal medicine physician who blogs at GlassHospital.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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