Women need to 'get mad' over new Canadian breast cancer screening guidelines: experts

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Women are heeding the call to “get mad” after a recent update to Canada’s breast cancer screening guidelines.

In December 2018, the Canadian Task Force of Preventative Health Care updated their 2011 guidelines. The updates included advising against routine screening for women between the ages of 40 and 49. According to a statement from the task force, mammograms are only recommended for women between 50-74 every 2-3 years. In addition, the task force does not recommend clinical breast examinations, the use of MRIs for examinations or self-examinations.

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The task force made its decision after research revealed that mammography for women between 40-74 had a modest impact on breast cancer mortality rating. The new guidelines also state that screening can lead to over-diagnosis, and “unnecessary treatment of cancer that would not have caused harm in a woman’s lifetime, as well as physical and psychological consequences from false positives.”

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Despite their decision, the task force noted that all recommendations are “conditional upon a woman’s personal priorities around harms and benefits of screening” and should be discussed with a healthcare provider. 

The update has raised concerns with healthcare providers and breast cancer survivors who feel as though failure to recommend routine screening will put thousands of women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Jane Seely, Head of Breast Imaging at the Ottawa Hospital, said the latest guidelines fail to take into account breast tissue density, a more significant risk factor for breast cancer than family history.

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“Breast tissue density increases the risk of breast cancer,” Seely told CTV News. “Screening works. We have good data that shows that there are 40 per cent fewer deaths from breast cancer when women are screened. That’s on actual statistics and they did not use this data.”

Seely said that not recommending screening to women in their 40s could result in 400 deaths annually.

“That’s equal to two airplane flights full of women dying from breast cancer unnecessarily every year,” she continued.

Dr. Paula Gordon, a member of B.C’s Women’s Hospital Breast Program urged women to “get mad” and contact their MPs and MPPs to reject the task force’s new guidelines.

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“There are lives that could be saved and cancers that could be found earlier,” Gordon said. “So this is why we need women to hear this important information.”

Breast cancer survivor Rebecca Hollingsworth is taking action after she was diagnosed when she was 44 years old after finding a lump during a self-exam.

After a mammogram and ultrasound, doctors told Hollingsworth there were six cancerous tumours. A week later, her 40-year-old sister MaryEllen was also diagnosed.

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“We had different types,” Hollingsworth explained. “Mine was large but not aggressive; it was a slower growing tumour, but her cancer was small but aggressive.”

Hollingsworth said she found the new recommendations “alarming” and decided take action by creating a petition demanding the Canadian government revise the guidelines once more. At time of publishing, the petition had over 6,400 signatures.

“A lot of this doesn’t make sense,” Hollingsworth said. “I think some of it is dangerous and I do believe they will cost women, and some men, their lives.”

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