Not Everyone Believes That Mammograms Save Lives

amy robachIt wasn't until 40-year-old ABC News correspondent Amy Robach did a mammogram on-air at the request of her producer for a segment on Good Morning America that she initially found out she had breast cancer. Afterward, doctors told her "that mammogram just saved your life," Robach wrote in her essay about her diagnosis. She now says she can't wait to get back to work following her double mastectomy, though she still has more cancer treatments ahead of her.

Robach's is an amazing story, the kind that gives most of us pause and reminds us how important it is to be on top of regular screenings. It's a true testament to the power of mammography. Most of us agree with Amy's hope that her experience will "inspire every woman who hears it to get a mammogram, to take a self-exam. No excuses. It is the difference between life and death."

But to some, women like Amy Robach who sing mammography's praises are sending the wrong message.


Dr. Sean Philpott is among those critics of mammography, who feel that screening women for breast cancer too early or too frequently actually causes more harm than good. In a recent story on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, he cited the controversial guidelines issued by the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force that "most women should not undergo regular mammography until they are at least 50 years old."

His case for women holding off 'til that age and getting less frequent screenings -- per the Task Force's recommendation -- is that only 1 in 70 women with no family history of the disease will be diagnosed with breast cancer, whereas it's 1 in 35 in their 50s. And "routine mammograms for women like Ms. Robach actually yield little benefit but come with considerable expense and risk." He says, "Only a single death will be prevented for every 2,000 women so screened."

Beyond that, he thinks routine screening is problematic because OMG, all of us delicate flower ladies may freak out unnecessarily! There's a "physical and psychological toll of false test results"! Then, you have to go get further testing and that causes anxiety and puts women through the ringer, so let's just stay at home and avoid preventative care altogether!

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Dr. Philpott may be a public health researcher and ethicist, but he doesn't give women nearly enough credit. We're all much stronger and more capable of being put through a long drawn-out process of contending with false test results than people like Philpott and recommendation-making groups like the Task Force would have everyone believe.

At the same time, why aren't we discussing doctors' responsibilities in the equation? Far too many health care practitioners think it's enough to know the American Medical Association rules inside and out but have little to NO grasp on bedside manner. They deliver potentially false test results like robots and can't bother to spend more than a rushed minute or two with their understandably worried patient. THAT is part of the problem just as much or more than how women are going to take potentially misleading mammogram results!

Ultimately, we ALL need to be more aware. Not just that the disease is out there and whom it affects, but we should know about our own personal risk with genetic testing. We should know how much screening we're willing to endure or if we would consider a preventative double mastectomy. We shouldn't be afraid to research, ask questions, make sure we have doctors who will deliver not just the best care, but also potentially unnerving news in a caring way. And ultimately, we need to be comfortable getting screened as early and as much as we see fit. Because Task Force recommendations and statistics be damned, being empowered patients with more information -- not less! -- at our fingertips will save our lives.

How do you feel about Amy Robach's testament to mammography vs. Dr. Philpott's stance?


Image via ABC

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