First a disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor. This blog is full of personal anecdotes and sometimes a scientific perspective. So, there’s that.
The American Cancer Society encourages women to start annual mammograms at age 40. (A newly-Canadian friend asked about this, and I believe their recommendations are a bit different.) Because of that recommendation, insurance companies are required to cover this level of screening. Doing a little research for this post, though, I found that in 2009, the US Preventative Services Task Force actually changed that recommendation to start biennial (every two years) mammograms at age 50, but I’m guessing that because of previous legislation, insurance companies still cover yearly mammograms after 40, and so doctors still suggest it. (Not only am I not a medical doctor, I’m not a politician, so if I’m wrong, please forgive me.) If a woman is at particularly high risk, earlier screening may be warranted. In general if your parent were diagnosed with a (screen-able) cancer at a young age, you should start screening when you are ten years younger than your parent was at diagnosis. So that means based on current standards, my beautiful little girl will need to start some breast cancer screening when she’s only 25. That really breaks my heart.
Even for women with reasonably normal risk, though, mammography is not without controversy. There is a growing voice speaking out against screening mammography, citing data indicating while it has increased the instance of diagnosed breast cancers, it has not drastically decreased the number of breast tumors presenting at a late stage, nor has it made a significant decrease in overall mortality. (Edited to add: a new study refutes this, indicating that mammograms really are catching tumors earlier. Read my update to the great mammogram debate here.) And they suggest that the number of unnecessary biopsies is not acceptable. Now, I’ve had a diagnostic mammogram, which is like a screening mammogram on steroids. Yes, it hurt. But for a few seconds a few different times. And I’ve had a few biopsies. One of them was particularly bad– I bled a lot. My chest was wrapped so tightly when I left that I couldn’t fully inflate my lungs, and the surgeon called me first thing the next morning because she was so worried that I might start bleeding and require emergency surgery. That was a bad biopsy. Still, I’d rather have a bad biopsy and find out that I didn’t have cancer than let cancer go undiagnosed for years. That’s all emotional, of course. I’m so glad I’m not the one who has to really examine the data and look at cost benefit analysis to make official recommendations and decide on insurance coverage. But my semi-emotional, semi-rational response? Get your mammogram for as long as your insurance covers it.
On the other side of the issue, there are people who wonder why mammograms are only covered for women over 40. I mean, I got cancer before I was 40. Breast cancer is still predominantly a disease of older women, and yet that doesn’t mean that young women go unaffected. But part of the reason that younger women don’t get mammograms has to do with their biology. Younger women have denser breasts– more breast tissue and less fatty tissue– and mammograms can’t visualize a dense breast nearly as well as a fattier breast. So a screening test that’s not as effective in a population that’s at a much lower risk? Not recommended. For young women at particularly high risk, those with a mutated BRCA gene, for example, an MRI can often be more informative and so is more likely to be covered by insurance.
I don’t think any woman can say the word, “mammogram,” without cringing just a little. But one very important thing I’ve learned in the last year is that it’s SO much better to find a tumor sooner than later.