Mammograms can, do save many lives

Picture a sold-out baseball game at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio, packed with 35,000 fans. That image represents roughly the same number of women and men who die nationwide from breast cancer each year. In Ohio alone, an estimated 1,700 women will die from the disease in 2016. It is a stunning statistic, but there is some good news: Thanks to early detection and improved treatments, death rates from breast cancer have been declining since 1989. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the perfect opportunity to learn more about breast screening guidelines that have been the subject of controversy in recent years.

While the value of early detection is widely recognized, conflicting screening recommendations can cause confusion about the age, frequency and method of screening. Why is there a lack of consensus? There are several reasons, including differing interpretations of data and changing screening or treatment options. Conflicting judgments about how to assess the benefits and harms of screening also play a role. In order to determine what is best for you, it may be helpful to learn more about the guidelines-making institutions and organizations, and about how their recommendations differ.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) and the American Cancer Society (ACS) are three respected organizations that are frequently referenced and provide differing guidelines. Specifically:

* USPSTF is an independent, volunteer panel of prevention and evidence-based medical experts. USPSTF guidelines recommend that women at average risk of breast cancer receive mammograms every two years beginning at age 50, when the potential benefits of screening outweigh the potential harms. The group advises against women at average risk getting mammograms in their 40s because of the potential for false-positives and the possibility of unnecessary treatment.

* NCCN, an alliance of 27 leading cancer centers,  recommends women at average risk at age 40 and older receive an annual mammogram and consider digital breast tomosynthesis (DBT). DBT can reduce false-positives and may be particularly beneficial to women with dense breasts.

* ACS advises that women ages 40-44 decide with their health care professionals about when to start receiving mammograms. ACS also recommends that women ages 45-54 receive yearly mammograms, and at age 55 and older get mammograms every two years.

As screening and treatment options for breast cancer continue to evolve, we can expect guidelines to evolve as well. A consensus among organizations that issue screening guidelines would make decision-making easier, but until then, you can be your own best advocate and discuss your options with your health care professional. Decide together when to start screening, how often to be screened and which screening method to choose, taking into consideration your family history and personal risk factors.

Mammograms can and do save many lives. Get screened. To find out more, visit preventcancer.org.

(LeeAnn Johnson is a member of the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention program of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and the spouse of U.S. Representative Bill Johnson.)

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