Mammograms can be lifesavers, but they could also be unnecessary exams, depending on when you have them. The American Cancer Society is now recommending women with average risk for breast cancer start having mammograms at age 45 — not 40, as previously recommended.
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Not only can women wait five years later to go through the uncomfortable test, the new recommendations also say that once women turn 55, they can cut mammograms back to every two years (instead of annually) — as long as they're in overall good health and have a life expectancy of at least 10 years.
Why the new recommendations? The ACS updated its previous recommendations established in 2003 based on a review of new evidence from research studies and screening programs. They're now weighing more the big downsides to these routine screenings. As NPR reports, there's a growing concern about the harms of mammography:
The USPSTF [US Preventive Services Task Force] said that routinely screening women in their 40s subjected many to unnecessary false alarms and treatment. Unneeded biopsies could lead to avoidable radiation, chemotherapy and even surgery, which might include lumpectomies to remove tumours or abnormal cells that would never become life-threatening. Some women even undergo unnecessary mastectomies.
In addition, mammograms use low doses of radiation and if they're unnecessary, you might want to take this into consideration.
Big footnote here: This isn't to say that mammograms aren't useful, and these new recommendations apply only to women who don't have a higher than average risk for breast cancer. If you have increased risk for breast cancer, because of family history of the disease, for example, you'll want to discuss with your doctor how early to start screening.