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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