Here's the latest chapter in the unfolding saga of mammogram guidelines: Today, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) published their new recommendations for when and how often women should be screened for breast cancer. And part of their suggestions involve women taking these important health decisions into their own hands. Writing in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the Task Force recommends that women between the ages of 50 and 74, with an average risk for breast cancer, have mammograms every two years. Before that age, women are advised to make a personal decision weighing their own pros and cons of going through the screening. "Women who place a higher value on the potential benefit than the potential harms may choose to begin biennial screening between the ages of 40 and 49 years," the new recommendations read. You may remember that the American Cancer Society (ACS) also recently came out with updated screening guidelines. The major difference between the two is that the ACS recommends mammograms every year (until age 55), whereas the Task Force recommends women get them every two years, starting at age 50. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), at which Therese Bevers, MD, medical director of the Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, acts as the breast cancer screening panel chair, also recommends annual screening.
The changes are more about framing than anything else, says Dr. Bevers. She says the biggest differences between this version and the last one — released in 2009 — is the emphasis on empowering women to make their own individual decisions about their care, and that the guidelines are "worded more positively" this time. But these guidelines only apply to women of average risk in their 40s and 50s. For younger women who have an increased risk for breast cancer (due to a factor like family history), Dr. Bevers suggests to get in touch with your doctor, because you may need to start screening early, or have it done more frequently. The bottom line is to know your own risks, and to address them in the way that's best for you — with at least a little guidance from actual health professionals.