In November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that routine screening mammograms for women with an average risk of beast cancer should start at age 50, instead of age 40. These recommended changes were very controversial and were NOT adopted. U.S. guidelines call for all women age 40 and older to have screening mammograms every year. Less ideally, some women may choose to have a screening mammogram every other year.
Unfortunately, a study found that even before the public outcry about the USPSTF proposed changes, only about half of women age 40 and older were getting screening mammograms as recommended.
The study looked at insurance claims for screening mammograms from more than 1.5 million U.S. women, age 40 and older, from 2006 to 2009. This was before the USPSTF recommendations were announced. None of the women had a history of breast cancer and they all had insurance coverage for routine mammograms during the study time period.
Even though the women had insurance coverage for screening mammograms, many were not getting screened as recommended, or at all.
Only about half of the women had mammograms every year:
- 47% of women age 40 to 49
- 54% of women age 50 to 64
- 45% of women age 65 and older
Looking at the number of women who had at least two mammograms in the 4 years of the study (every other year), the results were still disappointing:
- 57% of women age 40 to 49
- 65% of women age 50 to 64
- 53% of women age 65 and older
Overall, only 77% of the women in the study had at least one screening mammogram in the study's 4 years. About one-third of the women didn't have even one mammogram during the study.
It may be that concerns about mammogram cost, discomfort during the procedure, and fear about a possible breast cancer diagnosis are why so many women didn't get recommended mammograms. Similar studies looking at how well people follow colon cancer screening (colonoscopy) guidelines have found similar disappointing figures. The researchers feel that more information on the value of screening mammograms, as well as more efforts to motivate women to get them are needed.
Regular screening mammograms starting at age 40 help diagnose breast cancer early, when it's most treatable. Research has shown that mammograms starting at age 40 save lives. If you're 40 or older and have an average risk of breast cancer, yearly screening mammograms should be part of your healthcare. If your breast cancer risk is higher than average, consider talking to your doctor about a more aggressive breast cancer screening plan that makes the most sense for your particular situation.
There's only one of you and you deserve the best care possible. Don't let any obstacles get in the way of regular screening mammograms.
If you're worried about cost, talk to your doctor, a local hospital social worker, or staff members at a mammogram center. Ask about free programs in your area.
If you're having problems scheduling a mammogram, call the National Cancer Institute (800-4-CANCER) or the American College of Radiology (800-227-5463) to find certified mammogram providers near you.
If you find mammograms painful, ask the mammography center staff members how the experience can be as easy and as comfortable as possible for you.
For more information on mammograms and other tests to detect breast cancer, visit the Breastcancer.org Screening and Testing section.