New guidance issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force this week said women should get screened for breast cancer every other year starting at age 40, ten years earlier than was previously recommended by the group.
Screenings typically involve a mammogram — an X-ray image of the breast.
The National Cancer Institute reports that between 2015 and 2019, the rate of breast cancer among women ages 40 to 49 increased 2% per year. The new recommendations could potentially prevent deaths.
NBC News reports the task force estimated the new recommendations could prevent at least one breast cancer death for every 1,000 women, saving 20% more lives.
Other medical groups, including the American Cancer Society, and the American College of Radiology, recommend yearly screenings starting at 40.
Nancy Brinker has made it her lifelong fight to end late-stage deaths from breast and cervical cancers. She structured her work around a promise made to her dying sister, Susan G. Komen, for which an organization was named.
"I'm so pleased that they did this. It's a big step," Brinker said. "Usually they'll move the advisory a year or two away, but this is a good long period before. And I've never understood why it's bad to screen anyone."
Brinker and others believe the guidance could go a step further.
"We commend the U.S. Preventive Task Force group for changing their guidelines," Brinker said. "I wish that it would be every year instead of every other year, because ultimately, if you do have an aggressive breast cancer, it's growing very quickly."
Brinker more recently founded the Promise Fund of Florida to ensure all women have access to breast and cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment, as well as navigation, regardless of their personal resources.
The goal of the nonprofit is to improve the lives of women and reduce deaths from breast and cervical cancers in Palm Beach County.
The Promise Fund of Florida has already touched about 23,000 women through education, screening and navigation.
"When a patient who has no insurance, or has been under-insured, or doesn't have regular yearly primary care focus has a relationship with someone who really understands the health care system and can guide them, their whole life and future changes," Brinker said.
Dr. Elena Rehl is a breast surgeon at Good Samaritan Medical Center.
"It's such a common disease, and we know that if we find it early it's treatable and curable," Rehl said. "The best way to find breast cancer early is with mammograms because that's when we can detect it before it's even big enough that we can feel it."
Many physicians, including Rehl, said they've been following other guidance, getting patients into screening earlier.
"Those of us who treat breast cancer all day every day, most of us have already been following the guidelines of the American College of Surgeons and the American College of Radiologists, which the guideline has already been for screening at age 40," Rehl said. "The reason for this change is that we know that we're now seeing more and more women being diagnosed every year and at a younger age. And when breast cancer comes on to women at a younger age it tends to be more aggressive."
Rehl too believes the recommendation should be more regular.
"I'm a little bit disappointed that they're only recommending it every other year because really, a lot can change in a year," Rehl said. "We saw during the pandemic that patients who did not go in with their mammograms were presenting with cancers that were bigger and already spread to the lymph nodes."
Rehl said you must be aware of any changes in your breasts.
"What I tell my patients is they don't need to do an exam like what the doctor does, but basically be aware, as you're in the shower, cleaning your body, be aware of any changes," she said. "If something changes from your normal, then you go get it checked."