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A step back for women's health

By Susan Scanlan, Special to CNN
  • Susan Scanlan says new mammogram guidelines devalue a tool that fights health scourge
  • Mammograms give women hard-won control over their health care, she says
  • Scanlan says women are willing to risk chance of unnecessary treatment for survival
  • Early detection prevents costly treatments, saves lives, she says

Editor's note: Susan Scanlan is president of the Women's Research & Education Institute and chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, which describes itself as a coalition of more than 240 progressive women's groups representing more than 12 million American women. She helped found the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues and its policy arm, WREI, and was director of the caucus for five years.

Washington (CNN) -- I've been digesting the recommendations of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force for two weeks now. And I'm still swallowing hard.

How else to react to the cockamamie recommendations to discontinue routine breast self-exams, along with mammograms, for 40-something women?

Let's take one giant leap backward for women's health! These task forcers have devalued the only tool available to women for fighting what is practically a health scourge in our country.

I know from scourges. The granddaughter and daughter of breast cancer victims, my time in the barrel came in 2005. Four years and a double mastectomy later, I'm still kicking.

Also stricken: my best friend, my college roommate, two cousins and my sister, whose "unnecessary" mammogram found a stage 3.5 tumor when she was at the invincible age of 42.

And, no, not one of our sad sorority has the BRAC genes that signal a predilection for breast cancer. (The panel says the new recommendations don't apply to them.)

For more than 30 years, I've devoted my life to advancing the rights, responsibilities and well-being of women. In 1977, as a young staffer at the newly formed Congresswomen's Caucus, I supported then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski's fight to expand funding for women's research at the National Institutes of Health and for inclusion of women in clinical trials.

Read about a congressional hearing on the issue

We pushed hard to mandate coverage of mammograms by U.S. insurance companies. We campaigned to empower women to take health care into their own hands. We brought physicians to Capitol Hill to teach staff and members themselves about self-exams.

And we celebrated -- nay, rejoiced -- when early breast cancer detection slowly but surely led to significantly fewer breast cancer deaths.

So now, a few doctors and public health gurus have consulted the statistical tea leaves. They aim to cut down on the number of women who receive unnecessary treatments, they say, and to assuage the "anxiety" of the 10 to 15 percent of mammogrammed patients who receive a false positive result.

Please! Spare me such paternalistic pronouncements. Show me a 40-year-old woman who hasn't learned how to roll with life's punches. Show me a mid-lifer who'd trade short-term worry for longer-term death.

Try to sell that bill of goods to my sister or to the millions of women whose lives have been prolonged long enough to send a daughter off to college or see a son start a family -- or to fight another day for women's rights!

Despite the word from Washington health administrators that cost wasn't a factor in the recommendations, I suspect that money was indeed a consideration in their evaluation of screening practices.

Continually stunned by the arrogance of actuaries, I can do my own math. The later a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, the more expensive her treatment, the fewer her options, the lower her survival rate. Cancers found in women in their 40s also tend to be more aggressive, making early detection even more urgent.

So put me and my clan down as doubtful. We're going to fight these wrong-headed recommendations for ourselves, our daughters and the 40,460 American women, according to the American Cancer Society, who are expected to lose their breast cancer battle this year.

We have no intention of grasping defeat from the jaws of victory in what is becoming a winning war.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susan Scanlan