To Mammography or Not

The following guest post comes to us via Cynthia.

questionOctober is probably one of the best examples of a public awareness campaign catching on and sticking. Maybe you already knew, thanks to the ubiquitous pink ribbons you see all around you this month, but October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a time to encourage people to receive screening for the most common cancer among American women. The movement to promote breast cancer awareness has become pervasive. But for me, breast cancer is more than just a campaign — it is a disease that has become a part of my family history. And it has become personal, with numerous friends diagnosed and getting treatment, some of them before they reached the age of 35.

Contradictions regarding mammography exist within the medical community. Where did all of this put me?

When I turned 30, I talked to my doctor about my family history and the concerns I had about breast cancer. Although most health experts don’t recommend a mammography until a woman is in her 40s or 50s, she provided me with a referral to get a mammogram so that we had a baseline image for future comparison. I was anxious while I sat in the waiting room at the imaging center, but I also felt like I was being responsible and proactive when it came to my health. The mammogram was normal and it was put into my file. It wouldn’t be looked at again until I was 40, when my ob/gyn recommended that I get my next mammogram.

This October isn’t just Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also the month I turned 40. I am preparing for my next mammogram, but I have questions for my doctor before I make the appointment. Is it really necessary? Can I wait to get my next mammogram? I have a lot of questions, because there was conflicting information handed down earlier this year from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

On April 20, 2015, the Task Force (an independent, volunteer-based panel of experts) reported to Congress that they had new recommendations for mammography. They recommended that women 50 to 74 years of age get a screening every two years, and that mammograms before the age of 50 should be decided on an individual basis.

Despite what the Task Force reported, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists did not change their recommendations — mammograms should be offered annually at age 40 and older. The American Cancer Society also disagreed with the Task Force’s recommendations because they see that mammography is associated with a reduction in breast cancer deaths. Their recommendations are that regular screenings should start at 45 for patients at average risk of breast cancer, but that women, beginning at age 40, should also have the opportunity for an annual screening.

USA Today wrote a really informative article after the Task Force released its recommendations, illustrating the contradictions that exist within the medical community about what is truly best for women when it comes to mammography. All of these conflicting recommendations from expert resources can make it difficult for a woman who is looking for the right answer when it comes to mammography and her own breast health. And there is concern that with the new recommendation handed down by the Task Force, coverage for mammograms for women younger than 50 years of age may change under the Affordable Care Act. Right now, breast cancer mammography screenings for women over 40 are covered by Obamacare. If the medical community eventually decides that 50 is a more appropriate age, will patients have to pay out of pocket to receive this screening when they are younger?

Where did all of this put me? Like most health care considerations, it has to be about me and my family history. I talked to my doctor a couple of weeks ago when I called to make my appointment and she thought it was a good idea to get my mammogram this year. I called my insurance and the service would be covered. Looks like 40 is going to be the year that my breast health becomes a priority, not just for me, but for my family.

One final resource to share: While I was researching this post and pondering where mammography fit in with my preventive health, I came across a story on NPR where reporter Katherine Hobson tackles the same consideration, in light of the conflicting information from trusted organizations — to get a mammogram or not to get a mammogram? In the end, she made the same decision I am making. I’m not the only one!

Bodies like the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force provide helpful information to the public based on the best available evidence. But our doctors are there to work with us as individual patients to help us make the best choices for ourselves, based on our own unique situations and needs. Because of my family history, I feel like I’m making the right choice to start receiving mammograms a little earlier in life — and I’m so glad I have access to the services I need to protect my breast health throughout my life.

If you’re interested in scheduling a breast exam, contact your local Planned Parenthood Arizona health center. Additionally, if you are interested in mammography, our staff can refer you to providers, including free or low-cost options if affordability is a concern. More information about breast care at Planned Parenthood can be found here.