An informed screening choice for breast cancer

Most women in their 40′s believe they should have annual mammograms, regardless of what screening regimen their doctor might recommend.

So say researchers in Massachusetts who surveyed women (primarily white, highly educated) ages 39-49 presenting for annual checkups. They gave the women a fact sheet about the new USPSTF guidelines on mammogram screening in their age group, and asked them to read one of two articles either supporting or opposing the guidelines. The researchers then asked women about their beliefs, concerns and attitudes about breast cancer and mammogram screening.

Here’s what they found:

  • Women overwhelmingly want annual mammograms. Close to 90% of women surveyed felt they should have annual mammograms, regardless of what their doctor might recommend.
  • Women overestimate breast cancer risks. Eighty eight percent overestimated their lifetime risk for the disease, with the average estimate being 37%. (The correct lifetime risk for breast cancer is 12%). This is consistent with previous research on breast cancer beliefs.
  • The media may not influence women’s opinions about screening guidelines. No matter which article they read, close to 90% felt that that the (USPSTF) guideline changes were unsafe and 84% would not be comfortable delaying screening mammograms even if their doctor recommended it.
  • Friends and family are a strong influence. Seventy six percent of women reported having a close friend or family member who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Secondary analysis showed that 92% of those with a close friend or family member with breast cancer vs 77% of those without a close friend or family member with breast cancer felt women should continue to undergo routine mammography in their 40′s despite the new USPSTF guidelines.
  • The experience of false positive mammograms only reinforces women’s faith in mammogram screening. Ninety two percent of those with a prior false positive mammogram expressed discomfort with the USPSTF guidelines vs 79% of those who had not had a false positive mammogram.

This finding suggests that these patients were more likely to view the additional imaging and biopsies as a near miss rather than a false alarm. This is an important finding because it is in direct contrast to the conclusions drawn by the USPSTF, which cited psychological harm from false-positive results as one of the major risks of screening mammography in the fifth decade. Our findings are consistent with other research showing that women are very tolerant of false alarms if they perceive the issue being addressed as significant.

Breast cancer awareness or breast cancer misinformation?

Previous studies have shown that women not only over-estimate their personal risk for getting breast cancer, but also inflate their 10-year chances of dying from breast cancer by over 20-fold. They also wildly overestimate the efficacy of mammograms in lowering breast cancer mortality, believing it to be almost 100 times as effective as it actually is in reducing breast cancer deaths.

Who can blame women for believing they are at higher risks for breast cancer than they actually are? After all, breast cancer awareness campaigns have been among the most successful outreach programs ever created, with the pink ribbon being used at this point to market everything from jewelry to Kitchen Aid mixers. Whether these campaigns have actually had any impact in reducing deaths due to breast cancer remains a point of some debate, and there are those who credit the declines in breast cancer mortality more to new treatments than to increased uptake of mammography screening.

Have we lost women’s trust? 

With the disagreement among doctors about guidelines, the miscommunication of recommendations by the very folks writing the guidelines and the resulting confusion in the media attempting to report these guidelines, it’s no wonder women don’t trust their doctor’s recommendations and have made their own decisions about screening.

At this point, it’s probably easier to just write the mammo referrals once a year and move on. After all, the American College of Obstetrician and Gynecologists agrees that women should be offered annual screening. And my medical-legal risks align nicely as well, since failure to diagnose breast cancer is one of the biggest reasons gynecologists get sued.

But it that the right thing to do?

Call me crazy, but I happen to think that an informed screening choice is still the best one.

I’m not giving up yet. My patients want to make their own decisions about mammograms, and that’s just fine with me. But I’m going to do my best to be sure that decision is not just a gut response to an inflated sense of risks, but a careful decision informed by risks as well as benefits of screening and realistic expectations about what mammograms can and can’t do to lower breast cancer mortality.

To that end, here are some great resources for getting better informed about breast cancer screening:

  • National Cancer Institute  mammogram information. NCI recommends having mammograms every 1-2 years starting at age 40
  • ACOG pamphlet on mammography – ACOG recommends that women be offered annual mammograms starting at age 40.
  • American Cancer Society information on breast cancer screening – ACS recommends having annual mammograms starting at age 40.
  • USPSTF guidelines on mammogram screening – USPSTF recommends having mammograms every 2 years from ages 50-74. The decision to start biennial screening in women under age 50 should be individualized.
  • Breast Cancer Coalition -31 myths and truths about breast cancer

Margaret Polaneczky is an obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at The Blog That Ate Manhattan.

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