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Originally published November 20, 2009 at 2:59 PM | Page modified November 20, 2009 at 5:01 PM

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The mammogram debate

An expert panel's recommendations on mammograms ought not undo the decades of work empowering women to be proactive in detecting breast cancer.

NEW guidelines about mammography screening to detect breast cancer suffer from bad timing, poor wording and dubious advice.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force relies on sound science to recommend that women in their 40s not have routine mammograms and that women between ages 50 and 74 have them every two years instead of annually.

The advice conflicts with the American Cancer Society and other medical groups, creating a tug-of-war between science and conventionally held wisdom. Caught in the middle are women who will find it challenging to apply hard statistics to the very personal question of whether to be screened for breast cancer.

Mammography has its drawbacks: It is an uncomfortable procedure producing false positives in about 10 percent of cases. But women can deal with the drawbacks far better than the removal of one of the few ways of detecting breast cancer early.

The panel also recommended doctors not teach women breast self-examination techniques because the practice hasn't saved many lives. No, but it educated and empowered women around their health.

The panel's timing stinks. Questions have arisen about the recommendations' connection to health-care legislation in Congress. This isn't surprising for a public that has spent the past year hearing about the high cost of American health care.

Federal and state officials are right to offer assurances about the continuation of rules requiring private insurers to pay for mammograms for women starting in their 40s. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also helped calm the furor by advising women to stay on their own medical course.

Women were bombarded this week with government pronouncements about their health, including recommendations to scale back tests for cervical cancer. The guidance is critical information as women make decisions about their health. But ultimately, the decision must remain in the hands of women and their doctors.

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