National Press Club

Rage Over Mammography Guidelines Justified, Cancer Charity Leader Says

December 1, 2009 | By Bill Miller |

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Guidelines issued lby an independent government panel declaring that annual breast-cancer screenings are unnecessary for women in their 40s “have resulted in mass confusion and justifiable outrage” among women said Nancy G. Brinker, chairwoman of largest global breast cancer charity at a Speakers Comittee news conference Nov. 23.
The controversial guidelines, released by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force “have taken a tremendous toll,” said Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization that has raised more than $1 billion for cancer research and education and funds more than 1,900 cancer education, awareness and screening programs. “They’ve clearly set us back.”

Brinker, also a goodwill ambassador for cancer control for the United Nations' World Health Organization, criticized the way in which the task force announced its recommendations. Calling the release “a total surprise,” she said the 2-year-old federal panel should have convened a consensus among leading medical authorities before going public with its report.

She acknowledged that many of the panel’s recommendations are “very valuable …. we agree more than we disagree in many areas.” But she described the rage directed at the panel as “very serious.”

“Breast cancer is very personal to women,” she said, noting that thousands of new members have joined her organization since the release of the guidelines Nov. 9. “The women I’ve heard from are angry and worried,” said Brinker, a breast-cancer survivor who named her organization after her sister, who died 30 years ago of the disease.

“They believe that the mammogram they had – which detected their cancer – saved their lives. They believe that they did the right things, they did what we told them to do, and that they are alive today because those safeguards and recommendations were in place.”

Despite the disagreement over the frequency of screening, Brinker said there is no dispute of the need for greater access to care. “One third of American women who need the most basic screening and mammography are not getting it today,” she said. “Now they hear that maybe they shouldn’t bother. That is dangerous.”

She also called for better screening technology, which she said today is basically 50 years old.

Brinker served stints as ambassador to Hungary and White House chief of protocol during the George W. Bush administration. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year by President Obama for her work.

In its report, the federal task force reversed its long-standing recommendation that healthy women over 40 get a mammogram annually, citing false positives, increased radiation and patient anxiety as reasons. Instead, the panel advised women to delay regular screening until age 50, and then be tested only every other year.

As for her advice to women, Brinker said:

  • Mammography saves lives.
  • Keep doing what you’re doing.
  • Always talk with your doctor.