Medical professionals use a wide variety of tests to screen and diagnose cancer, and make use of a variety of clinical guidelines to determine when diagnostic testing is appropriate and when it is unnecessary. These guidelines vary depending not only on the research that is taken into consideration, but also on the organization.
One area where this variation is seen is with mammograms for the detection of breast cancer. According to the American College of Radiology, women should begin receiving annual mammograms at the age of 40 in order to detect tumors that are small and easier to treat. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, however, recommends biannual mammograms beginning at the age 50, since the risk of breast cancer increases with age and there is a higher likelihood of detecting benign growth before 50.
The American Cancer Society, for its part, recommends annual mammograms for women between the ages of 45 and 54, and biannual screenings for women 55 and up. Practitioners have different opinions when it comes to following the various clinical guidelines, and have to use their best judgment in applying them.
Developments in medical research can, of course, influence how physicians apply clinical guidelines, and can also affect the guidelines themselves when enough consistency accumulates. Physicians have to use their discretion when considering emerging evidence and act responsibly in recommending screening tests to their patients.
Many physicians and nurse practitioners who work in the field of breast cancer value early detection and order screening tests in accord with that approach. There are risks to early screening, though, and practitioners have to take these into consideration. In our next post, we’ll take a look at a recent study highlighting these risks.