Questions raised by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concerning the benefits of mammograms for women younger than 50 have sparked intense debate among medical experts. The controversy around mammogram screening isn't new -- the debate goes back at least as far as 1969.
With so much research and so many experts offering opinions on the value of routine mammograms, it might be hard to understand why there is still so much disagreement. A number of factors likely are contributing to the debate:
- Studies aimed at proving or disproving the value of a screening test, such as a routine mammogram, are very difficult to do. This type of research requires information from large numbers of people whose health is monitored for many, many years. The studies also require researchers to make assumptions when doing the analysis, yet experts often disagree on what the correct assumptions are.
- Deciding what's important and what's measured in a study can be different in each one. For example, the effect of screening mammograms might be measured in numbers of diagnoses, or it might be measured in lives saved (survival). The cost of screening might be the actual cost of the mammograms done, the cost of the additional tests needed for suspected abnormalities, or the cost of diagnosing more advanced disease if screening isn't done.
- Studies are done with different groups of people. This means different geography, different cultures, different genetics, and different lifestyles. All of these factors influence the research results and conclusions.
- Researchers try to be as precise as possible, but there are limits to that precision. Experts try to draw the best conclusions from the available information, even though it's not perfect. Many experts can look at the same information and sometimes draw very different conclusions.
The conflicting conclusions reached by different research studies and experts have led to different mammogram screening guidelines -- including different starting ages and different frequencies -- in different countries. Sometimes different regions within the same country have different guidelines. These different screening guidelines are sometimes labeled "right" or "wrong." But these differences actually reflect the differing conclusions based on genetics, geography, lifestyle, and culture.
Like many in the Breastcancer.org community, you may have questions about the breast cancer screening changes suggested by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Breastcancer.org has answers to some frequently asked questions about the task force recommendations, including how they came about, how they might influence screening in the future, and what they mean for women today.