Experts Question Screening for Women Younger Than 50

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A British study is not the first -- and won't be the last -- to question the current recommendation that mammograms should start at age 40. The researchers suggest that starting at age 50 may make more sense.

Recommendations on when to get mammograms take into account the risks and benefits for ALL women. But each woman is a unique person, not a statistic. And each woman wants to do what makes sense for HER. The researchers report that four out of 1,000 women could have their lives saved by mammograms that started at age 40 instead of 50. For those women, screening starting at age 40 is very important.

Though less common, breast cancer does occur in women younger than 50. Many times breast cancer in younger women is more aggressive. Finding breast cancer early when it's most treatable gives you and your doctor more treatment options and most likely a better prognosis. So why even question the current guidelines? The researchers note two good reasons:

  • Radiation exposure, which can actually increase cancer risk.
  • False alarms (or "false positives"): this means the mammogram identified an abnormality that looks like a cancer, but turns out to be normal. These false alarms mean that more testing is necessary, which adds cost. False alarms also create unnecessary anxiety. False alarms are more likely to happen in younger women.

Until we know more, supports the current recommendation that women get a mammogram once a year, starting at age 40. If you feel that starting at a later age makes sense for you, talk to your doctor and decide together the approach that's best for you. If you're at high risk for breast cancer, with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer, or have had radiation treatment to the chest in the past, you should discuss having annual mammograms before age 40 with your doctor.

No matter when you first start to get annual mammograms, remember that more than mammography is needed. Women also need to practice breast self-examination, get regular breast examination by an experienced health care professional, and, in some cases, also get another form of breast imaging, like ultrasound or MRI scanning. It's also important to tell your doctor immediately if you feel a lump in your breast during self-examination.

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