Public awareness campaigns, research, improvements in treatment and early detection have all played a role in decreasing deaths from breast cancer. But some advocates worry that the benefits of early screening and mammography are over sold.
Many are confused about the true nature of breast cancer, says Karuna Jaggar, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action. Instead of being a uniform, slow-moving disease that can be treated successfully if caught early, breast cancer comes in many forms. Some are aggressive, quick-moving and, even if caught early, can't be successfully treated. Screening brings both benefits and risks, Jaggar says.
"Very frequently people do not discuss the limits of mammography," says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medial and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, and author of the book How We Do Harm. Abnormalities on a mammogram often turn out to be non-cancerous, at other times mammograms will miss lesions that doctors wish they would find.
When women should begin to be screened is currently debated in the breast cancer community. The American Cancer Society and many health care providers, such as Kaiser Permanente, suggest women begin annual screening mammograms in their 40s. The Center for Disease Control, however, suggests screening mammograms once every two years between 50 and 74.