How the American Cancer Society explained its new breast cancer screening guidelines

The organization released revised screening guidelines this week that called for less frequent mammograms starting later in life. While it published the changes in a medical journal, it also took steps to explain them comprehensively in layman's terms.

ATLANTA: Prepared for blowback from both sides on the breast cancer screening debate, the American Cancer Society overhauled its website with educational materials for patients and clinicians on Tuesday following the release of its new guidelines.

The latest standards, which were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were "written for a professional, scientific audience" both in terms of language and structure, said Dr. Richard Wender, chief cancer control officer at the American Cancer Society.

"We have material there that helps people understand the guidelines, and frankly will be a lot more complete, useful, and tailored for the public than just reading a series of media reports about it, each of which is a little bit different," he explained.

On Tuesday, the American Cancer Society released new breast cancer screening guidelines on its website, highlighting one change specifically.

"Among the changes, the new recommendations say all women should begin having yearly mammograms at age 45, and can change to having mammograms every other year beginning at age 55," the group said in the announcement. It added that women can elect to begin the process at age 40.

The group is cognizant that it might take time for medical professionals to come around after working with a certain frame of mind for so long. One of the Society’s goals is to "do a really good job in helping people understand this guideline, the rationale for it, and also to help them make some decisions that take into account their own values," said Wender.

The organization also published a frequently asked questions list, a comprehensive page with information about the changes, a video, recommendations for early breast cancer detection in women without symptoms, and Spanish-language resources.

The organization is not working with an external PR firm, Wender added. However, its staff will be a major part of its communications plans to reach stakeholders, he said, noting that briefings about the guideline changes began on Tuesday.

Wender said the guideline offers "one of the strongest confirmations of the value of screening mammography as the most effective thing that a woman can do to reduce her chances of dying of breast cancer," despite previous concerns about the practice.

The group found mammography is "essentially equally effective in its ability to reduce mortality rates" in all age groups, Wender added. Yet at age 45, "the benefits substantially outweigh the harms in all women being screened for breast cancer routinely with an annual mammogram," he said.

One procedure now off the table is the clinical breast exam, Wender explained, because "our evidence shows it does not improve mortality outcomes." Instead, it’s the mammogram that offers a "lifesaving intervention."

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