How often women should get mammograms has long been controversial, because of the relatively frequent false-positives that these tests yield, and because of the added exposure to electromagnetic radiation for the women being screened.
But new research has found that there is a significant death rate in women under 50 who don’t get regular mammograms. The findings point to the importance of getting these done on a regular basis — especially for younger women and those with a family history of the disease, said study researcher Dr. Blake Cady, professor emeritus of surgery at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Dr. Cady advised women to start getting screened annually beginning at age 40; women in that age group often develop faster-growing tumors than women who are older.
This new recommendation goes against one made in 2009 by a panel of experts from the United States Preventive Services Task Force, which evaluates up-to-date scientific evidence and makes recommendations about health care practices. The task force had said that women between 50 and 74 should get mammograms every two years, and that women under 50 should talk to their doctors and decide whether or not to be screened, after evaluating the pros and cons.
However, the American Cancer Society has continued to recommend that women 40 and older with average risk be screened annually.
For the new study, Dr. Cady and his team evaluated more than 600 breast cancer deaths in women. Invasive breast cancer cases had been tracked from between 1990 and 1999, to 2007. The patients had been treated at Partners HealthCare hospitals in Boston. Researchers found that 71 percent of the deaths had happened among women who had not been screened; most of them were younger. Half of all deaths occurred in women younger than 50, while only 13 percent of the deceased women were 70 and older.
Women were categorized as unscreened if they had never had a mammogram, or if it had been more than two years since their last one.
The study also found an increase in breast cancer survival that coincided with the greater modern prevalence of mammography screenings — half of women diagnosed with breast cancer in 1969 lived only 13 years after being diagnosed, compared to 9 percent of those who were diagnosed between 1990 and 1999 who were part of the study.
One-third of deaths among women who had been screened regularly were said to be due to “interval cancers” — cancers which were detected in between mammograms done every two years. So, although getting a regular mammogram doesn’t completely cut out the risk of dying from breast cancer, it appears to be an important part of reducing that risk.
One medical expert noted that recent declines in breast cancer death rates are only partly due to improved treatments; the lower rates are mostly due to earlier detection and better screening techniques. The sooner the cancer is detected, the better the options are for saving the affected breast, and the lower the risk of death.
More than 40 thousand women die from breast cancer every year in the United States.
The above study was recently published online in the journal Cancer.
Self-screenings can be another very valuable (and radiation-free) part of breast cancer prevention. For a detailed explanation of how to self-administer a breast exam, please see our article Breast Cancer and Mammography, in our Natural Health Journals.
By Lisa Pecos