Everything to know about the new breast cancer screening guidelines for women 40+

Few things are more worrying than the prospect of a cancer diagnosis, especially on the heels of famous women in their 40s like Kate Middleton and Olivia Munn recently sharing their personal experiences with the disease. You might be wondering what you can do to reduce your own risk. Thankfully, there are new guidelines that can help reduce the rates of breast cancer deaths by as much as 20%, according to health experts. Here’s everything you need to know about the updated advice on breast cancer screenings.

New recommendations from the US Preventive Services Task Force suggest that women 40 and older now should receive a mammogram every other year until the age of 74. Biennial mammograms had previously been suggested for women 50 and up, with women in their 40s receiving them on an individual basis, depending on family history or symptoms.

The American Cancer Society supports the USPTF’s recommendation, noting that mammography is the best screening tool available to patients. The organization consists of a panel of volunteer independent medical experts whose recommendations help guide doctors’ decisions and influence insurance plans. The recs for women 50 and up had been in place since 2016, amid a steady increase in breast cancer cases among younger women in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are race- and ethnicity-based disparities among the statistics, with Black women facing a 41% higher death rate than their white counterparts due to the disease.

Overall, breast cancer is the second most common cancer among U.S. women (following skin cancer), and it’s the second-leading cause of cancer death, after lung cancer. Roughly one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime, as the American Cancer Society notes. Lowering the recommended age for screenings can help catch cases earlier, leading to the most optimal recovery rates. 

“We can save even more lives — up to nearly 20% more lives — with this updated strategy,” noted USPSTF Chair Dr. Wanda Nicholson, a senior associate dean and professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, in a statement to CNN.

Of course, it’s not just patients assigned female at birth who need to be vigilant about their personal risk. Along with cisgender women, transgender men and nonbinary people, as well as those with a family history of breast cancer or dense breasts, should remain in close conversation with their doctor and stay up-to-date on check-ups and screenings.

Some experts think that the USPSTF’s recs are “efficient” but believe that annual screenings are important among premenopausal women, especially among non-white women or those with higher risk factors, as CNN reports. There’s also the ever-present concern about access to care, with so many patients underinsured or unable to cover healthcare costs, especially among disenfranchised communities and patients of color.

“The good and bad thing about the task force guidelines is that they’re directly tied to health plans having to cover this at no cost,” Molly Guthrie, vice president of policy and advocacy at the breast cancer foundation Susan G. Komen, told CNN. Without annual screening suggestions, “we worry that the updated recommendation will drive down access and utilization of screening, meaning that we’re going to see, likely, a result of increased late-stage diagnosis, and that’s when breast cancer is harder to treat and much more expensive for the healthcare system as a whole.”

It seems the USPSTF advice exists to help minimize the chances of false positives, which they note are as high as 50% among the premenopausal population.

No matter your age or family history, chatting with your doctor is always a solid starting point to find out your best path forward. Should you need resources about free or low-cost screenings, the CDC’s National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) offers diagnostic testing for both diseases among underserved populations. Staying vigilant and informed—without worrying unnecessarily—can be among the best tools in your toolbox, especially with regards to your health and well-being.

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