Four years ago, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) updated its breast cancer screening guidelines, which included recommendations against routine mammography for women under 50 and changed the screening interval from one to two years. Since that time, however, we've been treated to a series of dueling breast cancer screening studies, with each set of researchers more certain than their predecessors that their research will prove to be the final word.
Case in point, in a study published recently in the journal Cancer, and reported on in this issue of FierceMedicalImaging, researchers evaluated more than 600 deaths that resulted from breast cancer, and found that 71 percent of them occurred among women who didn't receive regular mammograms. In addition, half of the deaths occurred in women under age 50. The message of the study, according to the authors, is that despite the USPSTF recommendation, women should begin screening at age 40.
But, as is the case with just about every study that has dealt with breast cancer screening, this one, too, has its critics. For example, Gilbert Welch--who last year co-authored an article in the New England Journal of Medicine concluding that screening mammography only "marginally" reduced the rate at which women present with advanced cancer and has led to substantial overdiagnosis breast cancer--told LiveScience that this study tells only "half the story" because the researchers didn't look at screening rates among women who survived.
Faced with such contrasting advice, what is a woman to think about the efficacy of breast cancer screening? Hopefully, any decision made will be done so with the assistance of a knowledgeable health professional, and will be as informed as possible, no matter the final choice.
This back-and-forth research isn't likely to come to an end anytime soon. It won't until there is as much scientific evidence as possible to help craft appropriate health policy.