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Mammograms: Are We Asking the Wrong Question?

Statement from Breast Cancer Fund CEO Jeanne Rizzo, R.N.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 19, 2009
CONTACT: Shannon Coughlin,, 415-346-8223 x14

A recommendation this week by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force to move the beginning age for annual mammograms from 40 to 50 has started a national conversation that has ignited fear and confusion in women across the country.

At the Breast Cancer Fund, we want to acknowledge the frustration and anxiety that this recommendation has caused among breast cancer survivors and their families, many of whom attribute their diagnosis and survival to either a mammography screening or self-exam. The overwhelming sentiment seems to be that these tools are all we have and might be taken away.

Annual screenings have provided an opportunity for women to relieve their fears of a breast cancer diagnosis. When a tumor is found by mammography and then treated, a woman understandably attributes her post-treatment survival to the successful detection. For survivors, mammography often becomes a personal victory story. Sadly, roughly 100 women lose their lives to breast cancer each day.

Our response is to shift the question: Why are we still relying on this method of screening when we have long understood that radiation is a known breast carcinogen? Why has there not been more investment in finding a safer and more effective tool for early detection?

The mission of the Breast Cancer Fund is to identify and advocate for the elimination of the environmental and other preventable causes of the disease. We have long held concerns about the risk of exposing women's breasts repeatedly to small amounts of ionizing radiation and the adoption of uniform recommendations about its use whether lowering the age to 40, changing the screening intervals or reinstituting the recommendation for age 50.

A blanket guideline for mammography is the antithesis of personalized medicine and belies the complexity of breast cancer. The reliance on mammography as a tool for detection also undermines the need for directing our national health resources toward the development of noninvasive alternatives that truly address prevention.

Breast cancer is a devastating disease. Women (and men) who are diagnosed with the disease are not mere statistics; each woman has her own story, and we hear daily about women who have found their tumor through mammography or self-discovery.

Every woman lives with the knowledge and fear that she may someday be diagnosed regardless of her family, reproductive and lifestyle histories. For those who do receive a diagnosis, there are often years sometimes decades of pain, anxiety and worry about the possibility of a recurrence.

Again, the real question is: Why can't we safely and effectively screen for breast cancer?

This is a moment of opportunity, a chance to recognize the weaknesses of our current tools for detecting and predicting the progression of existing breast cancers. And more importantly, it is time to turn the conversation from the need for finding cancers that may or may not warrant treatment to better understanding the causes of the disease and engaging in our collective efforts to minimize those risks that are controllable.

It is time to fully invest in breast cancer prevention.