Senior Women & Mammograms

Senior Women & Mammograms

Over the last two decades, there has been much discussion in the medical community about whether the benefits of mammography outweigh the risks. Mammography in women 40 to 49 saves lives, but the benefit is less than in older women.

For those women between 66 and 74, having a mammogram every other year seems as advantageous as getting one every year, according to the latest studies.

The other good news is that having them every two years results in significantly fewer false positives.

The research, from the University of California, San Francisco, was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and involved over 140,000 women who were between 66 and 89.

According to their findings, screening every other year does not increase the probability of older women having late-stage breast cancer. The research data, acquired from mammography registries in Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and California, is the largest available screening mammography data set in the country.

The findings showed that there were no differences seen in late-stage breast cancer rates between the subjects who received a mammogram annually and those screened every other year.

The researchers discovered that 48% of women between 66 and 74 who received annual mammograms had false positive results, while only 29% of females in the same age group who received screening every other year had false positives.

Women aged 66 to 74 years get no added benefit from annual screening, and face almost twice the false positives and biopsy recommendations, which may cause complications, anxiety and inconvenience.

The findings suggest that life expectancy and co-existing illnesses should be taken into account when informing recommendations in the future about cancer screening in older adults, the researchers concluded.

How to make your own decision about how often to have mammograms:

Read the mammogram guidelines

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend women get mammograms every year starting at age 40. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advises women to get mammograms every other year starting at 50.

Know your family history

Screening recommendations are different for certain groups, such as women with a family history of breast cancer and women who've tested positive for breast cancer genes.

Learn about other screening methods besides mammograms

Ultrasounds, MRIs, breast self-exams and exams performed by your doctor can all be used in addition to mammograms.

Know that mammograms miss many cancers

Don't have a false sense of security just because you've had a mammogram. Mammograms miss about one in five breast cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

Realize mammograms see some cancers that may never make you ill

This study found that 31% of newly diagnosed breast cancers never would have caused any harm; other studies say it's more like 10% to 20%.

Whatever the real percentage is, when you go in for a mammogram, realize that it might pick up a harmless tumor, but you're going to have to get treatment for it anyway since doctors can't yet discern a harmful from a harmless cancer.

Most major health organizations have concluded mammography saves lives. Although there may be some problems with certain studies, the evidence still shows mammography is a valuable screening tool.

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