TV personality Sandra Lee recently released an HBO documentary where she gave viewers an intimate, and graphic, look into her breast cancer journey. It was informative, heart-warming, and – at times – hard to watch. But more importantly, it raised really important questions about mammograms and when and how often women should be getting them.
When Lee pushes for early detection in her documentary, she’s entering the medical minefield of mammography screening recommendations. Several medical organizations, including the American Cancer Society, recommend that women begin routine mammograms beginning at age 45. Every woman’s situation and risk factors are different, but all of the official recommendations stop short of recommending mammograms for all women in their 40s. The official government recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force say women in their 40s should have a discussion with their physician to make an informed decision about when to start and how often to get mammograms. Under those recommendations, that a lot of doctors follow, mammography is not automatic.
Lee was 48 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer – mammography was recommended for her – but she only made the cut by three years. The documentary, RX: Early Detection – A Cancer Journey With Sandra Lee, includes footage of Lee making the difficult decision to have a mastectomy, as well as the actual surgery, and the aftermath. “I just want everything off, and out, and gone,” Lee says in the documentary before undergoing surgery.
Everyone in medicine wants to detect breast cancer early. Catching the disease early makes a world of difference when it comes to treatment. But there are strong disagreements about the age that women should start getting regular mammograms. Some believe screening all women in their 40s will produce too many false positives and unnecessary testing. The other side of that argument, however, is that it’s worth it because mammograms save lives.
Another important point to consider if you’re going to watch Lee’s documentary is that Lee’s a celebrity, and the girlfriend of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Her status as a public figure likely influenced her experience with the disease – after all, no doctor wants to be the doctor who missed a famous person’s cancer. Her experience does not represent those of all, or most women.
The value in the documentary comes from the focus on early detection – and empowering women with the knowledge they need to make their own health decisions. The key takeaway from the documentary is that women need to pay attention to where their doctors stand on the mammography debate. The option of not having routine mammograms for women in their 40s is based on calculations of the cost vs. benefit, and the concern of unnecessary treatment.