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Taking Action–Addressing the New Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

Last week I had the opportunity to join a great group of women on a panel to talk about the new breast cancer screening guidelines put out by the USPTF.  I sat at the table with Senator Gilda Jacobs, Dr. Ruth Lerman—a breast care specialist and 3 time breast cancer survivor—and Dr. Karen Hunt, Breast Imaging Site Director at Henry Ford Hospital.  The event was hosted by the Cancer Thrivers Network  for Jewish Women and moderated by another young breast cancer survivor and member of the Cancer Thrivers Network, Elizabeth Schiff Barash.  We all brought our unique point of views and expertise to the panel and I’m so thankful to the thrivers for putting this panel together so quickly.

The December 21 panel, with moderator Elizabeth Schiff Barash, Thrivers Michelle Passon and Patti Nemer and JFS Community Outreach Officer, Ellen Yashinsky Chute

It’s been 6 weeks since the USPTF released their new guidelines.  I often wonder if they envisioned the uproar and discussion their release would create.  It took the online communities through the blogosphere, news sites and social networks minutes to start posting opposition and opinions on the new guidelines.  There was no need to wait and hear more from them.  Their guidelines, as they released them on that November day, were clear.  If you were under 50 without knowledge of a family history, your best bet was to hope that the big “C” didn’t strike.  Because if it did, you would have no way of knowing until it was staring you in the face and was perhaps too late.  No mammograms, no need for breast self-exams and no clinical breast exams.  Talk about anxiety that unnecessary biopsies create, how about the anxiety of the woman that discovers stage 4 breast cancer when her cancer should have/could have been discovered earlier?  

We’ve spent 25 years educating women on the importance of routine mammograms beginning at age 40 and we’ve spent even longer touting the importance of breast self-exams.  Just recently, Deborah Wasserman Schultz introduced the EARLY Act which is designed to educate even younger women—specifically women under 40 about the importance of early detection.  Early detection of breast cancer saves lives and no one can deny that fact. 

So why do we have these new guidelines?  And what do they mean? Will laws change?  Will insurance companies change coverage? Will women start pushing their mammograms later and later? Will we no longer learn how to do a breast self-exam?  Will doctors continue to do clinical breast exams or will those go away?  I’m sure any of these scenarios are possible but for me, the scariest, is that women will actually listen to these guidelines.  Maybe not at first but when the chatter quiets down, people may start to push their screenings later and later.  They may start to ignore years of advice to check their breasts.  And guess what, more women will die of breast cancer. 

So where does this take me?  Clearly I disagree with the guidelines.  And yes I’m angry, borderline furious, but I see this as an opportunity to start a conversation and make a difference.  We can make sure that the women in our life understand that mammograms, breast self-exams and clinical breast exams are just as important today as they were on November 16.  We can sign petitions put out by FORCE and Susan G. Komen to make our voices heard and make sure all women have access to mammograms beginning at age 40. We can push for better diagnostic tools to detect cancer even earlier, and we can advocate for our own health by doing breast self-exams, getting proper clinical breast exams and continuing on with our yearly screenings.

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