TODAY   |  November 19, 2009

Doctors: Cervical cancer tests should wait too

Nov. 20: NBC’s Robert Bazell reports on new recommendations that say women should wait until 21 to be screened for cervical cancer. This comes after government panel issued new guidelines saying women need not begin routine mammograms until age 50.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> but we are going to begin with the new guidelines for women when it comes to cervical cancer . bob, good morning to you.

>> good morning, meredith. good morning, matt. first of all, the american college of obstetrics and gynecology, which released these reports this morning, wants to point out, this is not some mass conspiracy about women 's health and these two issues just happen to come at the same time and they're not related.

>> you mean mammograms and then cervical cancer .

>> cervical cancer , right. and we have to point out right from the top, the cervical cancer screening, known as the pap smear or the pap test , is one of the most or the most effective tool in cancer prevention that has ever been devised. when cervical cancer screening was introduced, the death rate from cervical cancer in this country and others dropped like a rock. so it's really important that women continue to get their cervical cancer tests. saying that, the new guidelines this morning say women can start at age 21 and then have them every two years after that. and the reason for that is because cancer, cervical cancer is very slow growing, and the tests that are necessary, if the tests find an abnormal cancer, can interfere with a woman's fertility later in life, and that has to do with the reason why they think younger women shouldn't get tested so often, not because the test is no good. there is an argument like there is with mammograms about the e effectiveness of the test.

>> let's talk about the mammograms and the recommendations of the task force . the head of the task force gave an interview to the " wall street journal " and said the advice the task force offered could have been more clear. did she clarify it?

>> i don't if she clarified it. she also said in the same interview they could have done a better job in releasing it to the public, so do a lot of people with the obama administration. and those things, as we all know, talking about this all week, have generated a lot of heat.

>> reporter: susan is a breast imaging specialist in new york and she is one of the many physicians and women who are part of a huge backlash about new suggested guidelines for mammograms.

>> i am angered, i am frustrated by these guidelines, and most of all, i am trying to help patients negotiate through a lot of confusion.

>> asking women randomly, it is easy to find those who are angry, confused, or both.

>> i think a majority of my friends that have gone through breast cancer -- and it is an alarming number of how many women we all know -- it's either been caught by mammogram or self-exam.

>> reporter: this backlash has been coming fast and loud, starting last monday, when a panel of experts that advises the federal government said that most women in their 40s do not need routine mammograms. it also said women in their 50s and 60s need them only every two years. for more than a decade, the advice has been for women to get annual mammograms starting at age 40. the panel concluded that the risks of mammograms for women in their 40s -- anxiety, unnecessary surgery and cost -- outweighed the benefits of finding cancer early.

>> the role of the task force is to provide information to the community, to physicians, to policymakers. it isn't an advocacy group that then tries to go out and force its guidelines on practices or organizations.

>> reporter: indeed, it appears that the guidelines will end up having almost no impact. the american cancer society and several major cancer centers, including m.d. anderson in houston, have said they will not change the existing guidelines.

>> i think it is a disservice to women . i think that we have seen great advances in reducing breast cancer mortality, and mammograms are clearly a part of that.

>> reporter: but many say the underlying problem in the entire debate is that mammograms are not as good as many people think they are or wish they are. they miss deadly cancers and they can lead to unnecessary surgery.

>> the fact is, we don't have good screening that works for women of all ages much as we need it.

>> reporter: and until scientists find better methods of detection, this scientific debate is likely to continue, but so will annual screening for women in their 40s and older. i think there's been a big confusion here between science and values. this panel that nobody's heard of will get a lot of attention from now on and it will make valued judgments in the open and it will not come so openly.

>> all right, bob bazell, thank you very much.