Tuesday, November 17, 2009

if you have cancer, you want to know it, believe me

There are new guidelines out for mammograms and women's self exams in screening for breast cancer. In short, in the US mammograms will no longer be mandatory for women in their 40s, and women will no longer be taught to examine their own breasts for lumps.

I was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer when I was 46 years old. I had found the lump myself. I was not part of a risk group. I have no family history of breast cancer. Most breast cancer patients don't.

I understand how statistics work. The bottom line is that on the whole, the gain of all of those mammograms, and all those examinations, don't outweigh the costs, risks (x-rays equal radiation, never a good idea), and anxiety that is created. From the New York Times story: Over all, the report says, the modest benefit of mammograms — reducing the breast cancer death rate by 15 percent — must be weighed against the harms.

If you're part of those 15 percent, things look a little different, though. If a woman like me didn't have mammograms, and didn't know how to do a self exam, chances are that she would live much longer with aggressive cancer spreading, making treatment less effective.

Part of the research that has informed the new guidelines is Swedish. A Swedish friend told me about it a while ago. She also said that in Sweden women are no longer advised to do self exams, because it causes anxiety. Someone on one of the morning shows today said that "our breasts become our enemies".

The bottom line for me is that in the end, life is going to kill all of us. There is no avoiding that. But we have to make sure that whatever we have, that can be treated, gets detected as early as possible.

So, if we won't have mammograms until we turn 50, we need to make sure we learn how to examine our own breasts.

If it freaks you out, get over it. You really have no choice.

1 comment:

cecilia said...

I agree with you!! There is a fundamental fault in the American medical system (apart from insurance, but that's another question) at that is that most doctor's practice preventing everything that might be rather than curing illness when it's there. I think the breast cancer debate we've had this week is an example of this that is now coming back to haunt us/them. Rather than informing and educating women on the issue, keeping a calm and objective mind when screening, a lot of women are being scared in to false negatives that will unjustifiably disrupt and unsettle them. Why? In some cases, doctors want to treat everything, even things that aren't a problem. Sometimes they are worried that they will miss something, and are instead overcautious in case they will get sued later.
And yes, I can see how a lot of women start to panic - they want to trust the medical profession.

Screening, mammography and self-examinations are hugely important, it is vital, and something that shouldn't be cut back - (especially not on recommendation of male Doctors - leave this to us women!) - but it should be used with a lot of respect and care. There is usually a lot of hype in this country, everything is very black and white. If you do this - this will happen, if you don't do this this will happen. It is very, very stressful to try and live a "normal and balanced" life (what ever that is) in this country, people tend to go to extremes rather than choose the "gyllene medelväg". So we tried to scare women in to breast cancer awareness - that didn't work - they have become too neurotic - let's try taking it all away from them, that should teach them to be less anxious in the future....

Whatever happened to objective and well-presented information? We have the technology and the research, let's use it to really find and treat cancer, instead of scaring the living be-jesus out of all of us.