Mammogram screening recommendation riles cancer survivors

Freedom New Mexico: Liliana Castillo Mammograph technician Cheryl Smoot tests Sherri Brewer of Clovis on Friday at Plains Regional Medical Center.

By Eric Butler: Freedom New Mexico

Danielle Swopes was 41 years old when her first mammogram turned up the result most women fear: Positive for breast cancer.

Because the lump that turned out to be a cancerous tumor was discovered early, the Portales city library employee has continued on with her life.

When Swopes thinks about new recommendations for mammogram screenings released from a government-appointed panel of experts early in the week, she bristles.

According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, women should begin regular breast cancer examinations at 50.

“I think it’s absurd; it’s just people trying to get out of taking care of women’s health issues,” Swopes said. “If I had not had mine done, there’s really no telling how it would have been found and when — and how bad it would have been.”

The American Cancer Society, which is opposing the task force’s findings, recommends a yearly mammogram for women, beginning at age 40.

It was because of that line of thinking, emphasized to the public through public service campaigns, that Swopes decided to get her first test.

“I kept putting it off, I turned 41, and just decided to do it. I went in and they just happened to find a spot. If it hadn’t been for the insistence of following that protocol, getting it done at 40, I would have put it off and no telling when it would’ve been found,” said Swopes, now 43.

“They didn’t know it was cancer at first, but they told me it was something you wouldn’t find with a self-exam — it only would’ve been found on a mammogram,” she added.

USPSTF recommendations also include only bi-annual mammograms for women in their 50s and 60s.

As for self-examinations, the panel reports the technique has not “demonstrated a reduction in breast cancer mortality or significant improvements in the number or stage of cancers detected.”

Dorothy Nelson, community relations manager for the American Cancer Society for southeast New Mexico, said the organization she serves recommends three types of exams: Regular self-examinations, clinical examinations and mammograms starting at age 40.

Nelson is a breast cancer survivor. Her’s was discovered at age 32.

“I don’t think much of it at all,” said Nelson about the USPSTF’s new guidelines. “I could be the poster child for self-examination and its effectiveness.”

Other local women also are part of a chorus of backlash against the recommendations.

“I think somebody was smoking some wild weed,” said Suzanne West of Clovis.

West, 61, was 48 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s been in full remission for the past 12 years.

“Everybody’s important, everybody’s viable,” West said. “But in their study, they act like some are expendable.”

Swopes and West suspect the underlying motive for the panel’s recommendations is money.

Swopes worries that insurance companies, based upon the new recommendations, will refuse to pay for mammograms for women under 50.

“I’m afraid that’s where it’s going to go,” Swopes said. “The insurance companies, already for the last few years, have been wanting mastectomies dealt with as a one-day outpatient kind of surgery, just because they don’t want to pay for a two-, three- or four-day stay.”

West flatly asserted that she thinks “it’s a money move for the insurance companies.”

Kathlees Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, backed away from the USPSTF’s findings only two days after they were released.

It was Sebelius’ agency that appointed the members of the panel and at a press conference Wednesday, she said the task force “does not set federal policy and they don’t determine what services are covered by the federal government.”

On the topic of insurance, Sebelius said she’d be surprised “if any private insurance company changed its mammography coverage” because of the new recommendations.

“I think it’s just all confusing to women and to doctors,” Nelson said.