The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended this week that women in their 40s not get a mammogram. Had my wife Sharon followed these recommendations, she would be dead today and I would be writing this as a widower and single father of two boys, who at the time of her diagnosis were just seven and five years of age.
Sharon was 41 years old when she got her first mammogram. She got it because she was working on Lifetime Television's "Stop Breast Cancer for Life" campaign and found it hypocritical to be telling women to get mammograms when she hadn't had one herself. Still, she thought there was no chance she could have breast cancer. Why? She had no family history of breast cancer, that's why. But her belief that she was fine turned out to be false. The truth is that 85 percent of ALL women diagnosed each and every year with breast cancer have no family history. Sharon's mammogram revealed not one, but two aggressive tumors in her breast, which resulted in a mastectomy that uncovered a third tumor along with 10 out of 23 positive lymph nodes.
The USPSTF report seems to be all about statistics, and not the women behind these statistics. Yet the women in our lives -- our wives, moms, sisters, daughters, friends, and coworkers -- are obviously more than just numbers to us. They are the ones who have taught us, more than anyone else we know, how to love, and be loved. And for all those special breast cancer survivors among us- my wife and sister being just two of the millions strong -- they're still here for us to love them back, all thanks to mammography's early detection.
My mom didn't get a mammogram back when she was diagnosed at age 44. If she had, she would probably be alive today. But she died at age 53 from cancer in her breast that metastasized to her kidney, and she left behind seven children and my dad to raise our big family, alone.
So why the big change of heart now for USPSTF with regard to mammography? "The harms resulting from screening for breast cancer include psychological harms, unnecessary imaging tests and biopsies in women without cancer, and inconvenience due to false-positive screening results."
Really? Well, how much more psychologically harmful will it be for all those women who follow USPSTF's recommendation and don't get a mammogram in their 40s and who find out, too late, that their condition is terminal because their breast cancer wasn't found early enough? That's a whole lot worse than a false positive, or the inconvenience of a biopsy, to say the least.
Yet Dr. Susan Love, considered by many as the medical godmother of breast cancer activism, also backs USPSTF's recommendations "because mammography is not as good a tool in younger women."
Huh? Every breast cancer specialist in the world today knows that when a young woman gets cancer, it's usually aggressive - very aggressive -- and that it can kill if not detected in its early stages. I know one such woman, right now, who is going to die before the end of this year because her cancer has spread through her like a forest fire. She's 39.
We hear, every day, younger and younger women being diagnosed -- again, thanks to mammography screenings. Breast cancer patients, in fact, are starting to turn up in adolescent girls, and this year even in elementary school children.
And so USPSTF, is there any woman out there who would choose to avoid the "anxiety, distress, and other psychosocial effects" that you've labeled as the "potential harms of screening" over knowing that she has breast cancer?
I didn't think so.
And neither does the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Scientific Advisory Board, or the American Cancer Society, or the American College of Radiology, who all say that women over 40 should get a mammogram.
Dr. Marissa Weiss, an oncologist and founder of Breastcancer.org, summed up the negative impact of the US government's advisory task force against mammograms best in her interview with The New York Times: "This is a giant step backward and a terrible mistake. We know mammography overperforms and finds things that will never be life-threatening, and we know it underperforms in some women. But it has no chance to perform in women who don't get it."
John W. Anderson is the author of STAND BY HER: A Breast Cancer Guide for Men (AMACOM, October 2009). He has helped his wife, his mother, his sister and his mother's best friend in their battles with breast cancer.
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