When it comes to health, the adage goes better safe than sorry. But for 40-year-old women getting breast cancer screenings, that may no longer be the case.
The American Cancer Society commissioned a study to update mammogram screening recommendations and reported women should wait until the age of 45 — a five year increase from the previous age recommendation — to get screened.
Researchers say they hope the change will reduce the chance of false positives and subsequent unnecessary anxiety, though some experts think the change is too risky.
The study suggests women at age 45 should begin regular breast cancer screening, women between the ages of 45 to 54 should be screened annually and women aged 55
and older should be screened biennially.
When women are screened at younger ages, the tests are more likely to show false positives, which are irregularities that show up in an X-ray as harmful, but may be benign, said the study’s co-author and University of Minnesota Environmental Health Sciences Professor Tim Church.
“When you screen for any disease, the tests are not perfect, so sometimes they’ll indicate a disease is present when it isn’t,” he said.
Patients screening positive can either undergo therapy or have the abnormal tissue surgically removed, Church said, soliciting pain and expensive treatment for what may be a false alarm.
And false positives can cause anxiety in women who aren’t likely to have cancer, the study said.
Instead, Church said women between the ages of 40 and 44 should be offered the opportunity to do breast cancer screenings but not strongly encouraged.
“Say, for 1,000 women, 50 to 100 get called back for extra tests,” University Masonic Cancer Center Director of Breast Imaging Dr. Tim Emory said. “Of the 50 to 100 who get called back, about 15 get biopsied. In those 15, only five had cancer.”
To avoid the stress, University Psychology Assistant Professor Bonnie Klimes-Dougan said women should educate themselves about their diagnoses and their risk of disease.
“One of the best ways to handle stress, especially in terms of medical situations, is to get information,” she said.
Still, Emory said he thinks screening earlier is worth the anxiety that may come from a false positive.
“If you screen women from 40 to 45, you’re going to find some cancers and you’re going to save their lives,” he said. “But they’re saying because you might be anxious because you’re called back, and you might be biopsied, [they] are unwilling to pay that costs and save those lives.”
The biggest harm from not screening is missing cancer that could’ve been found earlier, Church said.
“One issue is if somebody gets cancer before they start screening, the cancer could get so advanced that it would be difficult to cure,” he said. “But this is the same situation if someone screened for breast cancer at 40 but had it at 35.”