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Study seeks women to evaluate mammogram guidelines; Sanford Health is part of study

Kathy Smith, who has been receiving annual mammograms since age 29, is participating in a study to help guide mammogram screening. More volunteers are sought for the study. Patrick Springer / Forum News Service

FARGO—Kathy Smith has been getting annual mammograms since the age of 29, when her doctor recommended the regular screens after her grandmother died from breast cancer.

"I think I've been doing it every year," said the 52-year-old Smith, who lives in Lake Park, Minn.

Although mammograms are widely recommended, there is really no clear agreement about how often women should receive the screens or how old they should be to start regular screens.

A study Smith is now participating in hopes to provide women with guidance as to how they should be screened for breast cancer based on their personal history.

The study seeks to determine if a more-personalized approach to mammogram screening leads to better outcomes than traditional screening methods. Five universities and Sanford Health have joined together as members of the Athena Breast Health Network for the study, which began Nov. 1 at Sanford Health and will continue for five years.

Smith, a nurse, now knows that family history is only one risk factor concerning breast cancer.

"In reality, less than 5 percent of breast cancers are genetic," she said. "We didn't know that."

Smith, whose mother had a cyst in her breast, finds reassurance in receiving annual mammograms. Is she bothered whether the low-dose X-rays might slightly increase her breast cancer risk?

"Not at all," Smith said.

When she learned of the major study, Smith knew immediately that she wanted to participate.

"I know how important clinical trials are," said Smith, who has worked as a cancer research nurse. She's hoping the study will provide clear mammogram guidance for women.

"There's just been a lot of confusion and I don't think they've gotten that cleared up with the last guidelines."

Actually, even doctors would like more guidance.

Dr. Andrea Kaster, a Sanford breast health specialist, said there are no agreed-upon guidelines. Different groups and health organizations follow different guidelines.

She also would like to see a consensus emerge from the study. "Different providers have been providing different information to their patients," she said. "This study is really getting to the heart of that."

The study's goals are to determine the best monitoring regimen to catch breast cancer early as well as to avoid false alarms and unnecessary biopsies for women.

The Athena Breast Health Network involves cancer experts, health care providers, researchers and patient advocates at five University of California medical centers and Sanford Health.

"Our goal is to get 20,000 women to sign up," for the study, Kaster said. "We'll enroll for at least a year, but I think they'll continue beyond that. We're going to keep enrolling as long as we can. This is a huge deal."

In Smith's case, she will continue to receive annual mammograms during the study. In another arm of the study, women will receive screening based on an assessment of their personal health history, family health history, whether they've ever had an abnormal breast biopsy, the density of their breast tissue and lifestyle choices, among other factors.

The study is open to women ages 40 to 74 with no history of breast cancer or ductal carcinoma. For more information, go online to

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to

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