Sinclair Cares: Importance of early detection for breast cancer

The importance of early detection for breast cancer. PHOTO: Sinclair Broadcast Group

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and it's a chance to remind people about the importance of early detection.

The best tool for that is a mammogram. Angelica Thornton looks at when women should start getting them.

If you're a woman in your 40s, chances are you are somewhat confused about mammograms. The debate has been simmering, sometimes boiling for decades.

The latest guidelines from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force say "average-risk" women should begin at age 50 and test every other year.

“The trials and scientific evidence show benefit really starting at 50," said Dr. Heidi Nelson, Oregon health and sciences university professor.

Nelson lead the review that resulted in that recommendation. Her work was featured in the New York Times.

“Quite honestly, most women in their 40s who have biopsies, don't have cancer,” Nelson said.

But take a walk across OHSU’s campus and Dr. Karen Oh, diagnostic radiology professor and director of Women's Imaging, has some different advice for patients

“I wish that everybody would come in at 40,” Oh said.

Oh is one of many specialists who believe earlier screenings are best.

“If you want to save the most lives, improve the mortality the most, you would screen annually from 40 to 84,” Oh said.

Adding to the conflicting opinions, the American Cancer Society now recommends annual screenings at age 45. So, if mammograms do save lives, why isn't every doctor, every medical group on the same page?

It all comes down to balancing the benefits and harms.

“False positives, so you get called back but you don't have cancer, or biopsies that you don't need or anxiety that you don't necessarily want to have," Oh said.

That is why doctors tell patients there is no perfect answer to the mammogram question. About 80 percent of women with breast cancer have no family history. And scientists don't know what causes it. Until they can figure that out, there will be no "one-size fits all" recommendation. so talk to your doctor about what's best for you.

“We need you to be a part of that decision to make sure your values are brought into play, to make sure no harms are done unnecessarily. It's a close call," Nelson said.

If you do have a family history of breast cancer, your doctor will likely recommend even earlier mammograms. In some cases, screenings as early as your mid-20s.

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