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New Federal Guidelines for Mammograms: What They Mean for American Women

written by: AlyssaAst • edited by: BStone • updated: 4/20/2011

The new federal guidelines for mammograms lower the frequency of mammograms for women with no breast cancer risk factors. Controversy surrounds the guidelines because many believe these guidelines may leave breast cancer undetected.

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    Controversy surrounds the new federal guidelines for mammograms. In 2009, the U.S. Preventative Task Force released new guidelines regarding how often women should have a mammogram. These new guidelines haven’t settled well with cancer survivors, doctors and non-profit organizations. According to the new guidelines, it’s recommended women should now receive a mammogram every two years after turning 50, unlike the previous guidelines of yearly mammograms after the age of 40. The controversy stems from studies proving earlier detection of breast cancer lowers mortality rates.

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    Federal Guidelines for Mammograms

    According to the new guidelines, it’s also recommended self-breast exams are no longer used because they claim the self-exams don’t lower breast cancer mortality rates. The National Cancer Institute estimates 200,000 women were diagnosed with breast cancer in the U.S. and an estimated 40,000 women died as a result of the cancer in 2010. Due to these facts, those opposing the new guidelines stress early detection is essential for lowering breast cancer mortality rates. Many women in their 40’s are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, even women with no risk factors or family history of the cancer. This furthers the debate that mammograms should be conducted yearly and at younger ages.

    One reason the federal guidelines changed for mammograms is due to the fear of potential harmful effects from over screening patients for breast cancer. While mammograms are considered to be safe, there are risks from undergoing mammograms. Often, a mammogram may open the door for further testing to be conducted, such as unnecessary biopsies. Plus, these additional tests may severely increase anxiety.

    According to the report released along with the new federal guidelines for mammograms, the report claims mammograms only reduce the breast cancer mortality rate by 15 percent. While these guidelines are recommended, they don’t apply to women who have an increased risk for breast cancer, such as those with a gene mutation or those who have undergone extensive chest radiation. Women who have a family history of breast cancer are still urged to have regular mammograms.

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    What Does This Mean for You?

    Although the federal guidelines have changed, many doctors and organizations are enforcing their own guidelines for women, which continue to urge women to undergo yearly mammograms after the age of 40. The American Cancer Society is among one of the organizations recommending this annual screening, while other organizations, such as the National Breast Cancer Coalition, are welcoming the new federal guidelines.

    Although these new guidelines are in place, insurance coverage shouldn’t be impacted but health plans are more likely to urge older women to undergo annual mammograms. Currently, Congress requires Medicare to cover annual mammograms, but this can change if federal officials change their policies. Most private insurance companies are required to pay for mammogram expenses for women in their 40’s. Despite the new guidelines, women should still be able to receive their yearly mammograms.