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OK, When Am I Supposed To Get A Mammogram?

Now? Later? It's definitely not a one-size-fits-all thing.
Now? Later? It's definitely not a one-size-fits-all thing.

If you're confused about when to start getting mammograms and how often you should be getting them, you're not alone. The very organizations that are responsible for telling us when and how often to get those screenings don't agree.

More than half of women 40 and older think they should be getting a mammogram every year, according to a recent NPR-Truven Health Analytics poll. That's despite the fact that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends getting one only every other year — and only after women turn 50.

On Tuesday, the American Cancer Society updated its own guidelines. And though they've moved closer to the Task Force recommendation, they still differ.

If the major organizations that give mammography recommendations can't get on the same page, it's not hard to see why women are confused, too.

There are reasons for those differences, of course. Science is imperfect, and scientists can come to different conclusions when looking at the same data. And the guidelines reveal a fundamental disagreement over cancer screening. One side says it's worth subjecting some healthy women to what may end up being unnecessary procedures in order to catch every possible cancer, while the other side says that the harm of overtreatment needs to be considered, too.

So here's where four major organizations stand on mammography. It's not the clear guidance that women would hope for, but it's what we have now.

When should I start getting mammograms?

  • American College of Radiology: 40 years old
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: 40 years old
  • American Cancer Society: 45 years old
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: 50 years old; any decision to start screenings before 50 should be an individual one and take into account the patient's values regarding benefits and harms
  • How often should I get one?

  • American College of Radiology: Every year
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Every one to two years through 49, then annually for 50 and older
  • American Cancer Society: Annual through 54; at 55, begin getting them every other year
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: Every other year
  • When should I stop?

  • American College of Radiology: When life expectancy is less than seven years or when the woman would not act on an abnormal result of a screening due to age or comorbid conditions
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: No end date, but women 75 and older should consult with providers on whether to continue
  • American Cancer Society: No end date if woman is in good health and life expectancy of at least 10 years
  • U.S. Preventive Services Task Force: 75 years old
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    Lynne Shallcross