A recent announcement by a US government task force recommending against regular mammography tests for women in their 40’s is raising some very skeptical eyebrows. For years and years, we have heard doctors preach about the importance of regular breast cancer screenings after the age of 40. But according to the Preventive Services Task Force of the Department of Health and Human Services, a government panel of scientists and doctors in the field, screenings starting in a women’s 40’s lead to unwarranted cancer scares and costly, unnecessary biopsies that have little effect on improving a woman’s odds of survival. The task force’s official recommendation is for women 50 and older (not 40 and older as previous recommended) to get a mammography test every other year (not once a year as previously recommended).

Critics of the new recommendation include the American Cancer Society, who just released a statement advocating regular breast cancer screenings, and a number of breast cancer survivors, particularly those who were diagnosed at an early age. Accusations have been made that this recommendation is a product of government “rationing” to cut costs in preparation of the proposed universal health care plan.

The sentiments of the American Cancer Society are summed up in this statement released by Otis W. Brawley, M.D., chief medical officer of ACS:

“The American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual screening using mammography and clinical breast examination for all women beginning at age 40. Our experts make this recommendation having reviewed virtually all the same data reviewed by the USPSTF, but also additional data that the USPSTF did not consider… like the USPSTF, the American Cancer Society panel also found that mammography has limitations…But the limitations do not change the fact that breast cancer screening using mammography starting at age 40 saves lives.”

As a cosmetic and reconstructive surgeon with a special interest in breast reconstructions, I have to wholeheartedly agree with the American Cancer Society in their recommendation to continue annual breast cancer screenings after the age of 40. I have seen so many women come through my offices after successfully battling the breast cancer disease, many of them in their 40’s, and if an annual mammography contributed to saving even one of their lives, then it is worth it. As with most cancers, early detection is the key to survival. Even if mammograms at an early age lead to unnecessary biopsies, they also lead to early cancer detection – and that is the most important thing.

Dr. Whiteman is medical director and board member of The Sport of Giving, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cancer care and prevention for woman in local communities. Visit the Southern Plastic Surgery website to learn more about breast reconstructions, Dr. Whiteman’s breast cancer buddy system, and his involvement in the Sport of Giving.