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Planned Parenthood Windfall Funds Breast Health Expansion

Radiologist Gerald Iba checks mammograms at The Elizabeth Center for Cancer Detection in Los Angeles in May 2010.
Damian Dovarganes
Radiologist Gerald Iba checks mammograms at The Elizabeth Center for Cancer Detection in Los Angeles in May 2010.

When the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure moved to cut funding for Planned Parenthood's work to screen women for breast cancer early this year, the reaction was swift and furious.

The foundation quickly reversed course. But lingering hard feelings have led to fundraising issues for Komen, and there have been a couple of management shakeups.

Over at Planned Parenthood, though, donations poured in during the flap, including $250,000 alone from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. All told, more than $3 million came in over four days, and now Planned Parenthood says it's using the windfall to expand its services and education for breast health.

The money will help pay for specialized diagnostic services, such as biopsies, if a problem is found during screening. And Planned Parenthood will beef up education about clinical breast exams to encourage women — especially those under 40 — to get screened. The group has also come up with a tool to help health professionals assess the breast cancer risks for women.

"Early detection is critical in identifying breast cancer at its most treatable stages and saving women's lives," Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. "This expanded program will help us provide more patients with these vital screenings, and also ensure that more patients in need can get specialized follow up care, like ultrasounds or biopsies."

While screening can find breast cancers early, the testing also carries risks and costs. False alarms can lead to unnecessary biopsies, for instance.

Planned Parenthood's screening expansion runs counter to some recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force, an influential if sometimes controversial group that provides advice on health care. The task force recommends that screening mammograms start at 50 and continue until 74. Mammograms should be done every other year instead of annually, too.

The task force did say the decision for younger women to start screening mammograms should be a personal one that takes the risks and benefits into account. Still, early mammograms are clearly the exception rather than the rule in the task force's view.

As for clinical breast exams, the USPSTF says the evidence is lacking to make a recommendation for or against them in women 40 and over. The exams can detect cancers but also can result in false alarms the lead to worry and "unwarranted imaging biopsies," the task force wrote.

Dr. Deborah Nucatola, senior director of medical services for Planned Parenthood, told Shots the group is following the mammogram guidelines from American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which recommends annual mammograms. Nucatola says Planned Parenthood believes the benefits to catching breast cancer early outweigh the risks.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Planned Parenthood said after the initial version of this post was published that the additional funds going toward breast health will not be used to pay for more annual screening mammograms, including those for women over 40. The group said the initiative's emphasis is on follow-up services.
Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.