New Mammogram Guidelines: Are they good for YOU?
Last week the American Cancer Society (ACS) issued new guidelines regarding the age and frequency at which women should receive mammograms. Previously it was recommended that women begin annual mammography screening at age 40 until age 50, at which point screening frequency could be decreased to once every two years. Now the American Cancer Society has pulled that back by changing their recommendation to annual screening beginning at age 45, and decreasing in frequency to every two years at age 55. The reasoning behind the change seems rooted in an effort to eliminate some of the potential anxiety experienced by women due to false positives, while also decreasing the possibility of unnecessary biopsies and other forms of over-treatment.
The changes in the mammogram guidelines were met with some fallout from the media and general public because of the potential danger of missed opportunities to detect cancer in its early stages, especially aggressive forms. At first glance, it seems like a strange modification for ACS to make if it is really set on saving lives. But I’d like to give you my take on it, based on what I know about the human body, mammograms and cancer.
Guidelines are general. Follow your intuition.
I want to emphasize that “guidelines” are very general rules created for the very general population unless otherwise stated. There are always going to be those cases that shouldn’t pay any attention whatsoever to the general guidelines. For instance women who have a history of breast cancer could be one of those cases. Regardless, when and how you screen for breast cancer or any disease is a very personal choice that must be weighed, pros versus cons, prior to making that appointment. So no matter what I say in the following paragraphs, or what the media says, we women should always listen to our intuition first and foremost when it comes to our health and always do what makes us feel the most comfortable.
We all have cancer.
We all have cancer. Yes, you read that correctly. Each one of us has cells running amok day in and day out that, if our immune system did not address, would become a problem. Given this fact, we might ask ourselves if it’s possible for a mammogram to detect early stage cancer that, if left alone, would simply go away? The answer to that is “yes”. In fact a 2014 breast screening study found that one in five cancers detected via mammogram was not a health threat and did not need further treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiation. It is now known that some cancers grow slowly or not at all or yes, even disappear on their own. But once cancer is detected, it’s almost always treated because one can’t know for sure if it’s a threat or not.
So the fact that there may be cancer in the body does not mean that it will do anything more than disappear . . . unless the immune system is compromised of course. After all, it’s our immune system that’s tasked with protecting us against cancer and other illnesses. This, unfortunately, becomes another variable to consider when deciding if and when to screen for breast cancer. You see, fear compromises the immune system and therefore works against the body’s healing process, specifically by triggering the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response.
Fight-or-flight response compromises the immune system.
Maybe you’ve been in that very situation, when you get a call from the doctor’s office to come back in for further testing due to a “suspicious” spot or lump. What happens to you in that situation? Chances are that you experience fear. This is not a fear that you can run from, but one that will sit with you, affecting your insides, until you know if the threat is real. Is it cancer? Is it benign? Until those questions are answered, your nervous system will be locked into fight-or-flight mode.
This is the problem: During the fight-or-flight response, the body perceives danger and therefore responds by pulling energy from every system in our body that is not necessary for the successful escape from the “sabertooth tiger” (your body doesn’t know what the threat is, it just knows you are scared to death of something). So digestion, detoxification, and the immune system all slow down to a crawl until the threat, or perceived threat, has passed. The takeaway here is that the body cannot heal when it is in fight-or-flight … when we are scared or stressed. Period. It isn’t until the parasympathetic nervous system (the system whose nerves stimulate digestion, immunity and elimination) kicks back in that our healing power is restored. And that doesn’t happen until we are no longer fearful.
Now it’s certainly true that we women can put on our big-girl pants and deal with this potentially temporary fear and uncertainty on the outside, but the effect on the healing and regenerative processes of the body are handicapped in a big way. That means that once the doctor says “you have cancer”, those cancerous cells that may have normally just come and gone, regulated carefully by a strong immune system, now become a legitimate threat due to a compromised immune system.
Is there any danger in the mammogram itself?
Potentially, yes. Most noted in the research is that exposure to the low-energy form of ionizing radiation of the mammogram poses a greater risk to those genetically predisposed to breast cancer. Some studies also suggest that even relatively mild radiation exposure can alter the environment surrounding breast cells, prematurely age the breast cells, and increase the risk of cell mutation. And remember, when a woman is being screened annually, there may be a cumulative effect of this radiation exposure, increasing the risk of cell mutation and therefore cancer over a longer period of time. In addition to the risks associated with exposure to radiation, there have also been questions raised regarding the effect of compression on the spread of cancer cells of the breast.
Screening: Is it really prevention?
Although commonly associated with the phrase “breast cancer prevention”, screening, whether through mammography or other methods, does not prevent cancer any more than stepping on the scale prevents obesity. If we truly want to prevent cancer, we must claim responsibility for adhering to a healthy diet, engaging in moderate exercise, reducing our stress response and maintaining a healthy attitude. These are all things that fall squarely on our shoulders and greatly affect how well our immune system functions.
Summing up my take on how to handle the new mammogram guidelines.
- Listen to your body.
- Screen for breast cancer when and how it makes you the most comfortable.
- Do research! It’s your body and your health we’re talking about!
- Practice true prevention by doing those things that will boost your immune system so your body is able to heal when the need arises.
- Look into other modes of breast screening like thermography.
- If you’re faced with news that causes you fear or anxiety, practice breathing deeply as often as possible, as that simple activity can actually lessen the severity of our fight-or-flight response.
The bottom line: If you take responsibility for your own health and well-being, you can adhere to YOUR OWN guidelines, established through YOUR OWN research and exploration rather than being completely dependent on any one outside individual or organization including me, your doctor or the American Cancer Society!
Best of health to you and thanks for visiting my blog!
- Miller Anthony B, Wall Claus, Baines Cornelia J, SunPing, To Teresa, Narod Steven A et al. Twenty five year follow-up for breast cancer incidence and mortality of the Canadian National Breast Screening Study: randomised screening trial 2014; 348 :g:366
- Rothkamm K, Lobrich M. Evidence for a lack of DNA double-strand break repair in human cells exposed to very low x-ray doses. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2003;100(9):5057–5062. [PMC free article]
- Brenner DJ, Sawant SG, Hande MP, Miller RC, Elliston CD, Fu Z, Randers-Pehrson G, Marino SA. Routine screening mammography: how important is the radiation-risk side of the benefit-risk equation? Int J Radiat Biol. 2002;78(12):1065–1067. [PubMed]
- Van Netten, J. P., et al. “Physical trauma and breast cancer.” The Lancet, 343.8903 (1994): 978-979.
- Netten, JP van, and S. A. Cann. “Compression mammography and breast cancer: Should pain be ignored?.” Cancer Journal 9.6 (1996): 278-279.
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