Mammogram Debate

POSTED: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 - 10:47am

UPDATED: Thursday, June 3, 2010 - 10:59pm

The government now says women under 50 who are not high risk don't need mammograms. That's a major change from what experts have said for years to detect breast cancer. Some major medical groups think the government's making a big mistake.

Computer models convinced government experts to change their advice. Those models show getting mammograms too soon may cause more harm than good. Sabrina Singletary just got a mammogram. "When I was younger, that's all I kept hearing. That when you turn 40 you know, you should get your mammogram," said Singletary.

But now the government says she doesn't need one. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says women who are not high risk for breast cancer can wait until they're 50 and even then, only need to be screened every other year. The change comes because they say in younger women, the chance of a bad result outweighs the small benefit. "That is, the likelihood of having a false positive test with all the attendant anxiety, the additional imaging tests, perhaps even leading to biopsy that may have been unnecessary," said Dr. Diana Petitti of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Major medical groups still recommend mammograms under 50 and worry this new advice may confuse patients. "The worst outcome for this study would be for women to throw up their arms and say, 'well, I’m not going to get screened at all,'" said the American Cancer Society’s Len Lichtenfeld. They argue the government puts more emphasis on computer models than real patients.

"We're not satisfied at this point that the approach that they used is sufficient and adequate to discard a proven way of saving lives from breast cancer," Lichtenfeld said. Sabrina Singletary's 41 and says she'll still get a mammogram every year. But with the government now recommending against it it's unclear if insurance will pay. The task force also says there's no need to teach women to do self-breast exams.