Our View: Women’s health should be taken seriously
December 9, 2009
Steamboat Springs — When a national task force issued new mammogram recommendations last month, it led to an uproar from people concerned about the impacts on women's health.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has said that women ages 50 to 74 should have breast cancer screenings every two years. The previous standard was that women receive annual breast cancer screenings beginning at age 40 and continuing as long as a woman is in good health.
In an article in Sunday's Steamboat Pilot & Today, local doctors, including breast cancer survivor Rosanne Iversen, expressed concern and disagreement with that recommendation.
"My own opinion is that women should get routine screenings starting at age 40," said Iversen, who was diagnosed at age 44.
We aren't doctors, and we can't attest to the medical validity of the recommendations. But we do encourage women to take an active role in maintaining and monitoring breast health. Each person is different, and women should continue to do self-exams and communicate with their doctors about breast cancer.
Some critics are worried that the new recommendations will cause insurance companies to change their policies about paying for mammograms, making the technology difficult for women to afford.
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We understand that insurance companies paying for fewer mammograms could decrease costs for everyone. But we're also concerned about the lives of the members of our community who are affected by breast cancer.
We're concerned about women who need them having access to mammograms, and we're also bewildered by the task force's recommendation against teaching self breast exams, saying self-exams aren't linked to a decrease in breast cancer mortality rates.
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, "nearly 70 percent of all breast cancers are found through self-exams, and with early detection, the 5-year survival rate is 98 percent." The foundation also advises a calm response for those who find a lump. They should schedule a doctor appointment but "don't panic — 8 out of 10 lumps are not cancerous."
Groups that fight breast cancer have struggled for years to raise awareness about the importance of self-exams and mammograms. We can't help thinking that these recommendations represent a step backward. With breast cancer, as with other cancers, early detection is crucial. If self-exams, which don't cost a dime, save even one life, we think that makes them worthwhile.
The American Cancer Society's chief medical officer, Otis Brawley, issued a statement about the task force's recommendations.
"The American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual screening using mammography and clinical breast examination for all women beginning at age 40," he said.
He goes on to question the value the task force places on a life.
"The (task force) says that screening 1,339 women in their 50s to save one life makes screening worthwhile in that age. Yet (the task force) also says screening 1,904 women ages 40 to 49 in order to save one life is not worthwhile. The American Cancer Society feels that in both cases, the lifesaving benefits of screening outweigh any potential harms."
According to the society's Web site, http://www.cancer.org, an estimated 192,370 new cases of breast cancer have been diagnosed in 2009. An estimated 40,170 people will die from breast cancer this year, according to the figures.
The Web site states that "the chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer some time during her life is a little less (than) 1 in 8. The chance of death from breast cancer is about 1 in 35."
And, the American Cancer Society notes, "breast cancer death rates have been going down. This is probably the result of finding the cancer earlier and better treatment."
Yampa Valley Medical Center is working to provide better services to prevent breast cancer, and we applaud that. The hospital has new mammogram technology and performs an average of 2,300 mammograms a year. Doctors detect about 25 breast abnormalities per year.
In our small community, those diagnoses affect a lot of lives. We encourage women to protect their own by continuing to do self-exams and by following their doctors' advice.