When should women get mammograms?

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By Katrina Burton

MD Anderson is standing by a recommendation that women 40 years old and older receive annual mammograms, despite a recent study that raised controversy regarding breast cancer screening.

"We are not recommending that women change their screening practices," says Therese Bevers, M.D., medical director of MD Anderson's Cancer Prevention Center. "We stand by our guidelines that recommend women have annual mammograms beginning at age 40 and continue to be screened as long as they are in good health."

But a study by the Canadian National Breast Screening says annual mammography in women ages 40-59 does not reduce mortality from breast cancer and mammography screening should be revisited.

The results of the study, published in the BMJ Journal on Feb. 11, are in direct contrast to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation that  women should begin annual mammograms starting at age 50, and of guidelines by MD Anderson, the American Cancer Society and others that call for annual breast cancer screening to begin at age 40.

"I don't agree with the results," says Bevers. "There were limitations in the study that skewed the results."

The study followed almost 90,000 women between 1980 and 2005 in 15 different Canadian screening facilities to understand if there were benefits to mammography screening.

Bevers says another problem with the study was the quality of the mammogram. Twenty-five years ago, mammograms were done by film, making it harder to see the cancer. With today's technology, digital screening helps detect small cancers in the earliest treatable stages.

Bevers is concerned that women will become discouraged from getting mammograms.

"The reality is that early detection of breast cancer improves the odds of successful treatment," says Bevers.

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