Mammography report stirs controversy

The news: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in November recommended that women start getting mammograms at age 50 instead of 40, the age the task force recommended back in 2002.

Behind the news: The task force no longer recommends mammograms during the period in which black women are most often diagnosed with breast cancer.

Nationally, the rate of diagnosis for black women younger than 45 is higher than it is for any other racial or ethnic group. Among all ages, black women also have the nation’s highest death rates from breast cancer.

“If I had followed the new guidelines, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Beverly Gavin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 41.

Gavin, president of the Chicago chapter of Sisters Network, an African-American breast cancer group for survivors, said her organization cannot endorse the new recommendations. She said there’s no way to know the impact they will have on the black community, particularly because the recommendations don’t mention race.

The American Cancer Society is also continuing to recommend mammograms starting at 40.

Dr. Diana Petitti, vicechair of the task force, said that the task force did not specify subgroups such as race, but acknowledged that black women may have to have a different screening schedule.

“The fact that African- American women have a higher incidence rate for breast cancer at ages less than 45 years is not widely appreciated,” Petitti said. “Nor is it well-known that the prognosis for African- American women who develop breast cancer in their 40s is particularly poor, and that only part of the difference in outcome is due to lack of access to care. It was the hope of the task force that its recommendation might lead to more individualized risk assessment and tailored advice for women less than 50. African- American women might well be a group in whom the screening schedule would be different than for the average-risk women.”

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