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Am I Statistically Insignificant? US Prevention Task Force Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines in the Media March 10, 2010

Posted by Nina Harrell in Health Communications & Marketing, Healthcare, Prevention.
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The Avon Foundation for Women recently held their National Forum in San Francisco, CA just this week.  Among 300 breast cancer outreach specialists, nurses, scientists and doctors, the room was nearly unanimous in its frustrations concerning the US Prevention Task Force recommendations, which were published at the end of 2009 concerning breast cancer screening guidelines.  Essentially, they recommended that women should begin their mammography screening at age 50 instead of the previously recommended age of 40.  Additionally, they stated that women should only obtain mammograms once every two years instead of annually.  Also of note, they said that breast self-exams were not useful and that women should no longer do them because it caused excess worry and anxiety and led to unnecessary biopsies.

A biopsy is the test that doctors do in order to determine if  a lump is cancerous or not.  Although, there were several presentations to illuminate the rationale for the Task Force recommendations, medical providers and outreach specialists alike decried the recommendations as irresponsible for women’s health.  In the end, Avon Foundation asserted that they will continue to follow the American Cancer Society guidelines, which have not changed with the Task Force recommendations, and provided other presentations by scientists in the field to illuminate the other side of the argument.

In a segment by Katie Couric, she highlights the various sides of the breast cancer screening guidelines argument.  See the video link from the Washington Post here.  She covers both the human component and the scientific basis for the guidelines.  She does a brief expose on a woman who receives a cancer diagnosis in her early 40s, almost 10 years younger than the guidelines deem is worthwhile for mammography screening.  The woman highlighted is a mother of two children, and her doctor credits her full recovery to the fact that she caught her breast cancer early in a routine mammography screening.

Couric briefly highlights what the Task Force says would only be a modest gain in lives saved if women continue to screen as they have for the last 20 years.  Her segment provides illustrations on what the Task Force is trying to demonstrate is excess – procedures that do not drastically improve the quality of public health.

In all, I found the segment making modest attempts to remain balanced, but it definitely provided the audience with the fuel to continue to feel justified in their outrage with the suggestions made by the Task Force, a team of medical doctors, insurance policy  analysts and medical administrators.

As a public health professional working directly with the community, it is exceptionally difficult to have a discussion concerning women’s health with just the numbers.  Every woman’s life counts.

Over the course of Avon’s national forum, the recurring and prevailing sentiment was that a biopsy could never be deemed “unnecessary” until it was determined that there was no breast cancer.  For the women who had found their breast cancers through screening mammography or breast self-exams and later biopsy, these tests were very necessary to save their lives.  Not one of them would call themselves statistically insignificant – all carry the worth of  human life, and all believe in their absolute right to obtain the necessary screening and procedures to preserve it.

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