WASHINGTON – The Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that it continued to support regular mammography exams for women ages 40 and over.
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a collection of private-sector experts, had previously recommended regular mammograms for women 50 and over. The most recent review of available research prompted the group to add the younger age group to the guidelines, he said.
Other researchers’ work looking at past mammography studies, published recently in the medical journal Lancet, questioned whether the procedure helped extend the lives of breast cancer patients. Thompson said such debate was inevitable, but it should not dissuade women from getting regular screenings.
“The department and its agencies are constantly reviewing the latest science and researching the most cutting-edge technology advances, so that we can provide women with the best information and advice on breast cancer,” Thompson said. “Mammography remains a strong and important tool in its early detection.”
Dr. Janet Allan, the task force’s vice chairman, said the group reviewed the Lancet article as well as the criticized studies themselves. Though the critics were correct in pointing out procedural flaws, none of the mistakes invalidated the studies’ findings that mammography helped lengthen patients’ lives, she said.
“We found the strongest evidence of benefit and reduced mortality among women aged 50 to 69,” Allan said. “The evidence did not allow us to determine when women should have their first mammogram or how frequently to have them.”
Women should talk to their physicians to discuss relevant risk factors, such as a family history of breast cancer, and make individual determinations on when to start the exams, Allan said.
Dr. Peter Greenwald, a member of the National Cancer Institute, said the medical community was agreement on mammography’s benefits. The breast X-rays spot possible tumors earlier in development, he said, making treatment more effective. Digital systems will further enhance the procedure’s effectiveness, he said, by making it easier to get second opinions and compare exams over time.
There are risks associated with mammography, the officials said, including false positives that can lead to unnecessary biopsies and surgery. Over a 10-year period, 23 percent of women screened will have an abnormal X-ray, Allan said, with up to 90 percent of those being a false positive. Advances in mammography and biopsy techniques are reducing these risks, she said.
The task force has been reviewing research since about 1998, Allan said, and the Lancet article had nothing to do with any perceived delay in the group’s findings. Thompson, whose wife survived a bout with breast cancer, said he decided to release the information publicly on his own, without feeling any pressure to refute the article’s findings.
Greenwald said surveys had shown 25 percent of women considered changing their minds about mammography because of controversy such as that generated by the Lancet article.
More than 190,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with breast cancer last year, HHS said, and slightly more than 40,000 women died from the disease.
© 2002 by United Press International
Originally published on DrKelley.info, February 06, 2002. (Ed. 12.27.10)
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