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New breast cancer screening recommendations released by health panel

The updated recommendations are especially urgent for Black women, who are more likely to die from breast cancer, researchers say.

WASHINGTON — An independent panel of researchers is recommending that women as young as 40 be screened for breast cancer every other year. A draft recommendation for healthcare professionals posted Tuesday is in line with a growing medical consensus about the importance of earlier screenings. 

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force had previously recommended all women over the age of 50 get mammograms every two years. The group is made up of independent medical experts whose recommendations influence healthcare and insurance costs. 

The task force said the updated recommendations apply especially to Black women, who they say are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer and can often get deadly cancers at younger ages. 

“Ensuring Black women start screening at age 40 is an important first step, yet it is not enough to improve the health inequities we face related to breast cancer,” Task Force vice chair Wanda Nicholson said in a statement. 

Mammograms, which are x-rays of the breast, are an essential tool for diagnosing breast cancer, one of the most common forms of cancer in the U.S.

The American Cancer Society, an unrelated group to the task force, currently recommends women age 45 and up get biannual screenings. The ACS recommends women get an annual mammogram when they turn 55, to catch cancer sooner when it is easier to treat and less deadly. 

The task force draft highlights that more research needs to be done into early preventative care for breast cancer, specifically pointing to the challenges posed by the varied body types women have. 

"Nearly half of all women have dense breasts, which increases their risk for breast cancer and means that mammograms may not work as well for them," the group said in a statement about the draft recommendation. "We need more studies that show how additional screening with breast ultrasound or MRI might help women with dense breasts." 

Mammograms don't work as well on people with dense breasts, because the low-dose x-rays have a harder time penetrating the tissue to produce a clear image. 

“What we don’t know yet, and what we are urgently calling for more research on, is whether and how additional screening for women with dense breasts might be helpful, including through ultrasound, breast MRIs, or something else," said John Wong, a doctor on the task force. 

The draft recommendations are being publicly posted to the task force's website to solicit feedback from the public, through a review process that will last through June 5. 

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