Breast Cancer Advocates Not Buying New Guidelines Studies show that testing women in their 40s could save a small percentage of lives. But to some public health officials, it isn't worth the possible harm the excess testing causes. Cancer survivors and advocacy groups say the screening tool isn't perfect, but it's worth the risk.
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Breast Cancer Advocates Not Buying New Guidelines

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Breast Cancer Advocates Not Buying New Guidelines

Breast Cancer Advocates Not Buying New Guidelines

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The new mammography recommendations that came out this week have sparked scientific debate. They've also struck many women in a very emotional place. For breast cancer survivors and the groups that advocate for them, the message that early screening can save lives is a powerful one.

NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how they're reacting to this week's news.

ALLISON AUBREY: If you take a group of 1,900 women in their 40s and invite each of them to have a mammogram, studies show this will prevent one woman from dying of breast cancer - one. When public health types look at these numbers, they conclude that's a whole lot of testing for detecting so few cancers. So, why screen every woman, every year? But here's the rub: individual women don't think like public health folks. That one in 1,900 number means nothing to a woman who has a sister, a cousin or a friend with the disease.

ROCHELLE FERRIS: You know, in my circle, I probably know ten women who were diagnosed in their 40s.

AUBREY: Rochelle Ferris had breast cancer several years ago. She and fellow survivor Kathy Sims both say they were shocked when they heard about the new task force recommendations advising against routine screenings for women their age.

FARRIS: I was angry. I'm still angry. I'm angry because if I had taken that path and not had this mammogram, I wouldn't be here today.

AUBREY: The breast cancer community that Sims and Ferris both feel a strong connection with has been stitched together largely by the work of the Think Pink folks. The group Susan G. Komen for the Cure has managed to meld its health advice and advocacy into a powerful brand, which helps raise money, fund research, all the while making breast cancer survivors feel like princesses, at least that's the way Rochelle Ferris says she feels when she participates in the annual Walk For The Cure.

FERRIS: Oh, my gosh, they parade you through the grounds with 7,000 people. They give you roses, they give you crowns. You know, they have, you know, very famous entertainers come and sing. It's - yeah, it makes you feel very special.

AUBREY: Hearing all this, it may not be surprising that Ferris and Sims both say they trust the advice of this group, the breast cancer community they know and love, much more than they trust the new guidelines of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a group they know nothing about. Of course, Farris says, she turned to her doctor for advice too, but the point here is when it comes to changing public opinion on a topic as sensitive as breast cancer, it really matters who is delivering the message.

Allen Adamson is a branding expert with the New York-based firm Landor. He says as he's watched the pink movement soar, he sees an incredibly effective operation.

ALLEN ADAMSON: The advocacy groups have done a great job in building a relationship with their constituents - talking to them, engaging with them, and being there for quite a while now. And so as such, they're a real brand, these women, these constituents trust and believe in.

AUBREY: This analysis is nothing but flattering to Nancy Brinker. She's the founder of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the woman behind all the pink. She told me that she knows there's been a lot of criticism of her group over the years for turning a cause into a powerful industry. But as a result, she's got a lot of influence and she plans to use it to push for new breast cancer screening techniques that could improve mammograms or replace them altogether.

NANCY BRINKER: And the real issue is we need to find better, faster, cheaper, more specific and more diagnostic screening tools.

AUBREY: So, here's the interesting point: her group does disagree with the new task force recommendation. For now, they say women in their 40s should continue getting mammograms. But Brinker's group also recognizes, just as the task force did, that there is uncertainty about how well mammography works particularly for women younger than 50. This is a big point of consensus and if more women understand that this screening tool isn't perfect, it may help put the role of mammograms into better perspective.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: A little later this hour, we'll talk with two doctors with different views on breast cancer screening.

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