Last month, the American Medical Association joined a growing list of health care organizations  supporting mammography as a breast cancer screening tool for women starting at age 40 and that all insurance plans should cover the cost of the screening.

Last month, the American Medical Association joined a growing list of health care organizations  supporting mammography as a breast cancer screening tool for women starting at age 40 and that all insurance plans should cover the cost of the screening.

In late 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force came out with the recommendation that routine screening mammograms for women with an average risk of breast cancer should begin at age 50, instead of age 40. The AMA and other groups expressed concern over the controversial recommendation and the guideline was not adopted.

While not ideal, some women may choose to have a screening mammogram every other year, but it shouldn’t be the possibility of a false positive keeping them from more regular exams.

A recent study found about 61 percent of women getting yearly mammograms at age 40 were likely to be called back for more imaging tests or follow-up visits when the mammogram showed an abnormality that turned out to be benign or normal. False positives can be stressful, but so too is the prospect of a diagnosis of breast cancer.

About 7 percent of women will have a biopsy because of a false positive. But even under the USPSTF guideline, 42 percent of women required further testing and around 5 percent had biopsies because of false positives. And, screening every other year also saw more breast cancers diagnosed at advanced stages: 3.3 percent more in women in their 40s and 2.3 percent more in women over 50.

During that time, a Mayo Clinic analysis shows the rate of women in their 40s having preventive mammograms fell by almost 6 percent nationwide since the USPSTF recommendation. That translates to about 54,000 less mammograms in this age group.

The upside of early use of mammograms is that when breast cancers are diagnosed early, particularly in younger patients, there are many more treatment options. And while only two to four mammograms out of every one thousand result in a cancer diagnosis, women should ask themselves if it’s worth the risk.

The Breast Center at St. Mary’s Medical Center follows the new AMA policy that mirrors several other professional organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American College of Radiology, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network.

n For women with average breast cancer risk, screening mammograms once per year, starting at age 40.

n Encouraging young women to do regular breast self-exams starting at age 20.

n Breast exams by a doctor or other health-care professional every one to three years for women age 20 to 39 and every year for women 40 and older.

If you’re 40 or older and your breast cancer risk is higher than average (family history, etc.), you may want to talk to your doctor about more aggressive breast cancer screenings that make sense for your particular situation.

Mammograms are still the gold standard in early identification of breast abnormalities in women in their 40s. A large Swedish study recently provided evidence that from over one million women in their 40s, screening mammograms resulted in 29 percent less breast cancer deaths.

If you find mammograms painful, ask the staff in the Breast Center at St. Mary’s how the experience can be as easy and as comfortable as possible for you.

Walk-in mammograms are available in the Breast Center at St. Mary’s Monday through Thursday, 8-11:30 a.m., and 1-4 p.m.

To schedule a mammogram, call 816-655-5515. We’ll even send you an annual reminder.