It’s been all over the news this week–the US Preventative Services Task Force came out with a new set of recommendations for breast cancer screening, including recommending against yearly mammograms for women ages 40-49. Their recommendations say that there is only a small benefit from starting testing at 40, and that this benefit isn’t enough to outweigh potential harms of testing, including psychological harms, unnecessary biopsies, and false positives.
The task force also recommends against teaching breast self-examination, another issue that raises controversy. Alison wrote a post a couple months ago about whether breast self exams are beneficial, take a look to get a couple more viewpoints on the issue.
The main point is that starting routine mamography at age 40 doesn’t save or add years to enough women’s lives to recommend screening for everyone. But mammography does sometimes detect cancer in women in their 40s, and these recommendations have many people worried that insurance may stop covering mammograms for women under 50. Since the task force states, “the decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one and take patient context into account, including the patient’s values regarding specific benefits and harms,” it seems unlikely that insurance companies will be able to refuse coverage for women whose physicians believe they should get earlier testing. Women with a strong family history of breast cancer or with genetic mutations that predispose them to the disease will still be encouraged to start testing earlier.
Keep in mind that these recommendations aren’t from some random group of government officials with no knowlegde of healthcare out to save money at the cost of peoples health; on the contrary, members of the task force include mostly physicians and professionals with degrees in public health and nursing from across the country.