It used to be simple: Women need a yearly mammogram to screen for breast cancer starting at age 40.
But the guidelines have changed, leaving many women confused as to when and how often to get a mammogram — and even at what age they should stop getting them.
In the spring of 2015, the federally appointed U.S. Preventive Services Task Force updated their 2009 advice, reiterating that women wait until age 50 to start regular mammograms, and that they only needed one every two years — not annually.
The panel also noted that women in their 60s are "most likely to avoid a breast cancer death through mammography," but that there wasn't enough research to recommend a mammogram past 75.
The announcement set off a heated debate that flared up again six months later when the American Cancer Society announced a major change in its long-standing mammogram guidelines: The group now recommended women wait until age 45 to start annual mammograms; after age 55, women can switch to every two years — a surprising change considering government data shows that a woman's risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer increases between 50 and 70.
This, of course, would not apply to women at high risk because of previous cancer or a family history of breast cancer. Those women, based on their doctor's advice, may need more frequent screening.
Critics pointed out that the cancer society's change was based on the advice of a panel that "did not include a single surgeon, radiologist or medical oncologist who specializes in the care and treatment of breast cancer. Not one," said an op-ed column in the New York Times written by three breast cancer experts who bashed the new revisions.
Ironically, the cancer society's announcement came during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, when women are typically urged to do more to prevent the disease that kills more than 40,000 annually.
Kevin Oeffinger, M.D., chair of the breast cancer guideline panel, said in a statement that the decision to screen every two years for postmenopausal women was "based on the fact that postmenopausal breast cancers tend to develop more slowly." However, women may still choose to continue annual screening at 55, he added.
The new guidelines also don't match guidelines issued earlier by three other major medical groups, adding more murkiness to the question of when to get a mammogram.