New Mammogram Recommendations Miss the Real Fear

Image courtesy of NIH

My 40th birthday comes in less than a month and, right on schedule, my ob.gyn handed me the paperwork last week to get my first screening mammogram.  Yesterday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued new recommendations that will now have women younger than 50 years skipping screening mammograms completely.  Will I still be getting my screening mammogram? You bet, I’ll get it done before the year is out–so that my insurance company will still pay for it.

Why?  Because cancer is a truly terrifying word for most of us.  Yes, it’s an irrational fear that I might develop breast cancer before age 50.  Given my family history, it’s far more likely that I will develop heart disease. Still, like many women, I’m far more scared of developing breast cancer and the fact that it’s an irrational fear doesn’t make it any less real to me.

In the new recommendations, the USPSTF says that the small chance of detecting breast cancer on a screening mammogram in women younger than 50 years is outweighed by “the psychological harms, unnecessary imaging tests and biopsies in women without cancer, and inconvenience due to false-positive screening results.” 

I think the task force misses the real fear for most women. I went through a series of imaging tests and consultations last year for what turned out to be benign thickening of tissue. It was a harrowing experience and several months of nonstop anxiety and I’d gladly go through it all over again to know that another mass was benign or to catch a tumor early.  The real fear is not detecting breast cancer early, even if  the risk of developing the disease is statistically very small.

So, I’ll get that screening mammogram this year but what about next year and the year after that?  Will my insurance company stop covering screening mammograms for women younger than 50 and will I end up having to spend my own money to feel reassured?

—Kerri Wachter, @knwachter on Twitter

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Filed under Health Policy, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Oncology, Primary care, Radiology

2 responses to “New Mammogram Recommendations Miss the Real Fear

  1. Rebecca Stowell

    If my sister had been unable to get a mammogram at the age of 41, she would be dead right now. Her first mammogram detected a stage II breast cancer, which was successfully treated, and now she has been cancer free for 9 years. She is currently 50. Since there is no history of ANY CANCER OF ANY KIND in our immediate or extended family, at least up until the age of 85, her diagnosis came as a shock to all of us. You can be sure that my other two sisters and I got our mammograms regularly throughout our 40’s. Is this recommendation for the insurance companies or for the women that this “Preventative Task Force” is supposed to protect?

  2. Dawn Vohsen

    It is also interesting that they said self exams are worthless. I found a cyst using self exam. It could have been a malignant tumor–it wasn’t–just a fluid-filled cyst. But, I found it–so, duh, I guess self exams DON’T work. Hmmmmm.

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