Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Washington Post Vs. Paternalistic Breast Cancer Guidelines

Washington Post editor Marisa Bellack speaks out against paternalistic mammography guidelines in her editorial, "Don't worry your pretty little head about breast cancer".

She notes that "anxiety" is being increasingly invoked as a (bad) reason to limit screening mammography, especially for women between ages 40-49:
And yet, there was a 19th-century echo in the American Cancer Society’s announcement this past week of revised guidelines for breast cancer screening. Whereas anxiety was once a reason for aggressive medical intervention, it is now invoked to avoid intervention — an argument that is both patronizing and unscientific. There may be good reasons for women in their early 40s to forgo regular mammograms, but this isn’t one of them.

A reference to anxiety appears in the very first paragraph of the harms-and-benefits analysis commissioned by the cancer society: While early screening “reduces breast cancer mortality, there are a number of potential harms, including false-positive results, which result in both unnecessary biopsies and increased distress and anxiety related to a possible diagnosis of cancer.”

But the idea that anxiety is a major harm doesn’t have much scientific support...

There will always be uncertainty in cancer screening. And that uncertainty understandably fuels anxiety. But most false-positive mammograms are quickly resolved by additional imaging. Among the cases that progress to biopsies, 9 out of 10 show no sign of cancer. And even when there is a breast cancer diagnosis, that’s not equivalent to a death sentence. Doctors should be able to respond to anxiety rationally, putting fears in context and expediting follow-up testing and results to limit what can be an agonizing wait.
For more details, read the full text of "Don't worry your pretty little head about breast cancer".

See also this related Washington Post piece, "Why this Harvard radiologist still recommends women get mammograms at age 40".

(Link via Dr. Evan Madianos.)