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What You Need to Know About the New Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

What You Need to Know About the New Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

The American Cancer Society (ACS) issued new screening recommendations for breast cancer on Wednesday.

The updated guidelines are based on extensive research published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association that evaluated the pros and cons of screening mammograms in women with an average risk of breast cancer. (Women with an average risk are those who have no personal history of breast cancer, no known or suspected presence of a breast cancer gene, and who have not received any chest radiation between the ages of 10 and 30.) 

One of the most significant changes is that women with an average risk are now recommended to start annual screening mammograms at age 45. The last time ACS issued screening guidelines, in 2003, the recommendation was to start annual mammograms at age 40. It’s crucial to note, though, that you still need to talk to your doctor in order to determine what's right for you, and you still have the option to start annual mammography at age 40 if you choose. "We support women making that decision for themselves along with their clinicians," Elizabeth T.H. Fontham, MPH, DrPH, professor of public health at Louisiana State University, a previous president of the American Cancer Society and cochair of the ACS breast cancer screening guidelines told Glamour.

So why the change in the age recommendation? ACS set out to determine guidelines that would reduce the potential risks of screening mammography (such as false positives, additional procedures, and over diagnosis) and optimize the benefits (such as early detection, a reduction in mortality, and years added to life). “And when we looked at women in five-year age groups instead of broad 10-year age groups, which had been the norm in evaluating screening groups before, we found substantial differences in women ages 40 to 44 versus ages 45 to 49,” said Dr. Fontham. In women ages 40 to 44, mammography screening reduced mortality by 18 percent; and for women ages 45 to 49, mammography screening reduced mortality by 32 percent.

While having a mammogram in your early 40s can certainly be life saving, the risk of breast cancer is a lot lower in that time span, and the risk of false positives and stressful follow-up testing is greater. “At age 45 and up, the balance becomes more favorable,” said Dr. Fontham, and the benefits are clearer.

"One thing is for sure: screening saves lives," said Dr. Fontham. But the choice to go ahead with mammography at 40 or 45, according to ACS, should be yours. And this new recommendation encourages women to take an active role in the decision-making process. "Some women would rather deal with the risk of false positives and be certain they catch any possible cancers as early as possible, while other women might not," Dr. Fontham told Glamour. "It's important that everybody understands one size doesn't fit all."

One other big change in the ACS guidelines is that routine clinical breast exams are no longer recommended. Researchers found that these routine in-office breast exams given by your ob-gyn or primary care physician didn’t offer any additional benefit, however it's still your prerogative to ask for one. "Exercise some common sense," recommends Dr. Fontham. And on a daily basis, "Be aware of your breasts and what is normal for you, and if you notice a change, then head to the doctor."

More From Glamour:
• New Breast Cancer Rules You Need to Know If You're Latina
• Breast Cancer Awareness 2015: Pink-Themed Beauty Products That Give Back
• New Study Finds Minority Women With Breast Cancer Get Worse Care
A Day in the Life of a 40-Year-Old Woman With Advanced Breast Cancer 

Photo Credit: Getty Images