Another Study Asks If Mammograms Are Helpful or Harmful

In yesterday’s New York Times, there was an article, “Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms.” The writer explains how the study questions whether mammograms save lives or impose unneeded tests and treatment. You can imagine how upsetting this uncertainty is, especially for a breast cancer survivor.

In all cancers, there is a long-standing debate about how worthwhile scans are versus the radiation imposed on the body from these tests and the anxiety induced from such tests versus leaving a tumor in place that wouldn’t harm or kill someone. I understand the arguments on all sides, but I always have a strong reaction when someone says mammograms aren’t worth it.

For me, if one life was saved from an annual mammogram, then it’s worth doing. Especially if that one life is mine or someone I love.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 39. I hadn’t yet had a mammogram. Even though I come from a long line of women with breast cancer, none of my doctors suggested I get a mammogram before turning 40. And a few years earlier, a national government panel recommended mammograms be done starting at 50, instead of 40. Even more reason for my doctors to not push for a mammogram.

I often kick myself about not insisting that I get an annual mammogram starting at 35 years old, because of my family history. I found my lump in a routine self-exam, which I did without fail every month since I was in college. If I did get annual mammograms before age 40, would we have found my breast cancer earlier? Would we have found it before it spread to my lymph nodes? Would it have spared me having a mastectomy? Would I not have had to go through chemo and radiation? Of course we don’t know and will never know the answers to these questions. What ifs do little but create guilt. So I try to let that go. But I do admit it creeps into my mind sometimes.

Dr. Susan Love, one of the smartest, most well-known and accomplished surgeons and advocates on breast cancer, was interviewed about this study on KRCW’s Press Play with Madeleine Brand. Dr. Love talks about how there have long been questions about mammograms. And how this study shows that there are many different types of breast cancers and there isn’t a one size fits all approach to breast cancer screening and treatment. Which means we need research and studies to continue.

As Dr. Carol Lee of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center explains on the PBS NewsHour, this study is an update on a study reported nearly 20 years ago. Her opinion is that this study is just one in a long list of studies about mammograms that actually show a benefit of mammograms. Her opinion is that mammograms do save lives. I tend to agree with her.

I have another problem with this study, which was done with women ages 40-59. Once again, when breast cancer is researched, talked and written about, young women (women 40 and under) and women of color are barely, if at all, discussed.

As the Young Survival Coalition states, it is estimated that more than 250,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer at 40 or younger are living in the U.S. today. More than 13,000 young women will be diagnosed this year.

Mortality rates for breast cancer have been decreasing since 1989, with larger decreases in women under 50. That’s great new. But what about women under 40? The survival rates for young women are not good. Compared to older women, young women generally face more aggressive cancers and lower survival rates. The statistics on women of color aren’t good either. Although the overall lifetime risk of breast cancer is lower for Black women compared with white women, the death rates are higher.

Would annual mammograms save the lives of more young women and women of color?

When we look at the benefits and disadvantages of mammograms, let’s expand the conversation. Let’s look at all types of breast cancers, all ages of women and all ethnicities. Not until there’s a cure for breast cancer or a vaccine, the goal continues to be to save lives. And in my opinion, annual mammograms play a part in that.

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To Scan or Not To Scan

Last week I went for my 6-month check up with my breast surgeon. I’m so grateful that I got connected to her. She’s both brilliant and compassionate with a great bedside manner. She gives me all the time I need to ask as many questions as I want and discuss whatever is on my mind. So I run a lot of things past her and ask her opinion on every medical question I have.

During my check up she did a breast exam and found no lumps or areas of concern. I do get a rash on my left breast, which is my breast cancer side, so that always worries me. Rashes are on the list of ‘red flags’ to talk to your doctor about. My breast surgeon said that the rash looks ok and because of the fact that it comes and goes means its nothing to worry about. Tumors don’t come and go. So she said everything looked and felt good.

HOORAY!!! Let’s take a moment to appreciate that.

Hooray

I still do my monthly breast exams, as my doctors recommend, feeling around my implants for any tumors that might pop up if any breast tissue was left during my mastectomy. But now I have to get to know my new boobs, and understand what feels normal and what I should be concerned about. So at every doctor’s appointment, I ask my breast surgeon about everything that feels unusual. Luckily, everything I’ve asked about she says is normal.

I also asked my breast surgeon about doing scans to see if my cancer has returned. There’s a lot of conflicting opinions about scans in the medical and cancer world. Some people and doctors think that scans can give people cancer from the radiation (ironic, huh!). And some people and doctors think that doing scans are good to be able to detect cancer early, which raises the survival rate. Early detection saves lives, right?

I’m really conflicted about this. Scans bring on scanxiety. What are they going to find when they do a scan? Then what do I have to do when that something is found – more surgery, more chemo? Ugh! But for me, not doing scans means the constant worry of something growing inside me that I don’t know about, which will keep growing until I feel it myself or get a symptom on the ‘red flag’ list for cancer recurrence.

What a shitty choice? Is ignorance bliss? Or is ignorance stupidity? Do the risks of radiation from scans outweigh the risk of not finding cancer early? Or is it the other way around?

I’m leaning toward doing scans. I’d like to know that I’m cancer-free every year. Mentally that helps me continue to live my life and make plans for my future. Not knowing how long I’ll be here is unsettling – to say the least. And I know that I can get a scan one day and then 3 months later cancer could return. Nothing is guaranteed. At least a clean scan lets me exhale and breath for a moment.

My breast surgeon originally said that we should do MRIs every year to watch for a recurrence. But when I talked to her about it last week, she said she usually recommends MRIs every 2-3 years. (I can’t do mammograms with breast implants, so MRIs are the way to watch for lumps. One of the few positives out of having breast cancer – no mammograms.)

We decided we’d revisit the scans discussion at my next 6 month appointment. My breast surgeon said that most health insurance companies don’t cover MRIs every year. How messed up is that! I have pretty good insurance, so I have to check on that. I’m going to pissed if she’s right.

I spent every other month in 2013 doing ultrasounds to watch for ovarian cancer. That much screening was quite overwhelming and difficult for me. So doing a scan for breast cancer every 2-3 years sounds really good right now.

So for now I’m left to decide – to scan or not to scan?