Are the New Mammogram Guidelines Sexist?

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There's been a lot of blowback at new guidelines recommending that women under the age of 50 skip mammograms to avoid false positive and undue anxiety. Doctors and advocacy groups worry that insurance companies will stop covering breast exams for younger women, and that laxer guidelines will increase risks. On top of that, now Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 41, says the guidelines are sexist: "It's a very patronizing attitude that these scientists have taken," she said. "It's pretty outrageous to suggest that women couldn't handle more information."

Many female columnists echo the charge, arguing that women have a right to as much information about their bodies as is available. Here's why these columnists won't be trusting a "faraway task force" anytime soon.

  • I'll Show You Anxious Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe finds the reasoning behind the panel's recommendations on mammograms somewhat...flawed. "You want anxious women?" She asks. "Take away health insurance coverage for routine mammograms." Vennochi says the new mammogram guidelines are just another example of women being "taking a hit on health care." Women, she writes, "must always fight to make sure they are not thrown under the political bus."
  • We'll Manage the Anxiety, Thanks In The New York Times, columnist and breast cancer survivor Gail Collins says it wasn't a doctor, government panel, or even mammogram that helped her find her cancer in time, but her own self-breast exam. "I had mammograms every year like clockwork, and I had just gotten a clean bill of health from my latest one when I found a lump on my left breast while watching a rerun of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer,' multitasker that I am." In other words, Collins would rather not submit blindly to the "experts" when her health and well being is at stake. "In summary, the cutting-edge of medical thinking of the 1990s may have induced my cancer, and then the universally recommended testing protocol failed to detect it."
  • 'A Giant Pink Bell Began to Ring in My Head' Kate Pickert of Time Magazine said the panel's recommendations seem lackadaisical about the lives of individual women ."Women are incensed that some faraway task force has decided a 15% risk reduction - i.e. actual lives saved - is not enough to warrant mass screenings," Pickert reports. "I asked a number of female colleagues here at TIME what they thought of the new guidelines and all said they found the new recommendations to be disturbing. One even said the news set off 'a giant pink bell ringing in my head.'"
  • Pink Ribbons Are Lovely, But Women Who Want Information Should Have It, Time Magazine's Karen Tumulty writes. "Count me among Kate's colleagues who are flummoxed by this report," she writes. "I think it proves that even scientists can be pinheads. My issue is not with their recommendations on when and how often women should get mammograms. That seems worthy of debate. What I don't get is their finding that women should not even do self-examinations. And why? Because if we find a lump, it might make us worried."
  • Women Are Not Innumerable Dolts  At Slate, Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatrician, says women deserve all the information available to them. "If the sports media have no problem filling newspapers and the airwaves with complex statistics--and often discussing them clearly--why do the health media treat the same consumers like innumerate dolts, especially when women's lives are at stake? Hopefully it's not because they think only testosterone-drenched sports fans can handle the math."
  • ...Actually, This Is a Good Thing  At The Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer says mammograms are far from perfect. She argues that the experience of false-positives and likely unnecessary biopsies is indeed anxiety-inducing enough to take reasonable risks to avoid them. Kaminer offers her own experience as a guide:
The biopsy was negative, but it didn't mean that I didn't have cancer: it meant that tissue extracted in what may have been a meaningless operation was benign -- which is not to say I wasn't relieved. But along with relief, I gained an understanding that yearly screenings and even biopsies can offer no guarantees of being cancer-free. So I wonder how many women will welcome the new recommendations for fewer mammograms, perhaps greeting them with a silent 'I told you so,' and how many will continue the yearly screening regimen, with its false positives and, perhaps, even falser sense of security.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.