Just this week the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued new guidelines regarding routine mammograms for women in their forties suggesting that they skip the dreaded routine mammograms until later on. "The benefits are less and the harms are greater when screening starts in the 40s," said Dr. Diana Petitti , vice chair of the panel. The new recommendations are not without controversy, as a few vocal healthcare professionals and journalists feel that women may now become "complacent about the dangers of breast cancer". Although some medical professionals are up in arms about the new guidelines, they may actually be a blessing for women.
As a medical procedure, mammography is certainly not without risk. Mammography uses low levels of radiation to detect cancer. Terry Rondberg, author of Under the Influence of Modern Medicine argues that radiation-induced breast cancer is a growing concern. Taking four films of each breast in a standard mammography means that "premenopausal women undergoing annual screening over a ten-year period are exposed to a total of about 10 rads for each breast," according to Samuel Epstein, MD. In addition, according to Epstein and Seaman, the breasts of premenopausal women are "highly sensitive to radiation, each rad of exposure increasing breast cancer risk by 1 percent, resulting in a cumulative 10 percent increased risk over ten years of premenopausal screening, usually from ages 40 to 50."
Mammographies may also be less effective than women are led to believe. False positives are common in mammograms, with studies showing that "70 to 80 percent of all positive mammograms do not, upon biopsy, show any presence of cancer." Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, author of The Politics Of Cancer, "claims that in women ages 40 to 49, one in four instances of cancer is missed at each mammography."
So why the protest and disagreement coming from organization such as the American Cancer Society? According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition "cancer is a multi-billion dollar business". Large organizations such as the American Cancer Society have much at stake here. James Bennett, professor of economics at George Mason University, stated that "in 1988 the ACS held a fund balance of over $400 million with about $69 million of holdings in land, buildings, and equipment. Of that money, the ACS spent only $90 million— 26 percent of its budget— on medical research and programs." Both the ACS and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have been criticized for conflicts of interest, including links to the major manufacturers for mammogram films and machines, such as DuPont, Kodak, and General Electric. Corporate "heroes" and "friends" listed by ACS include Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis, among others. Novartis manufactures Femara, a breast cancer drug, and earlier this year Johnson & Johnson acquired Cougar Biotechology, a maker of experimental cancer medicines.
Once again it is up to women to become informed and educated about the risks and benefits of a medical procedure such as a routine mammogram. Women should explore alternatives, such as thermography, with their healthcare providers and also take into account what is behind the messages and recommendations that they receive from their doctors or through ad-driven campaigns targeting their participation.