In November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that routine screening mammograms for women with an average risk of breast 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. While not ideal, some women may choose to have a screening mammogram every other year.
Results from a large study presented at the Multidisciplinary Breast Cancer Symposium in September 2011 offer more evidence that both annual mammograms and regular breast self-exam are valuable breast cancer screening strategies for all women, including women 40 to 50 years old.
Researchers looked at the medical records of 5,628 women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer to see how the cancers were discovered. All the women were diagnosed between 2006 and 2009 and their records came from the Michigan Breast Oncology Quality Initiative registry. A registry is a centralized database of records, often anonymous, that allows doctors and other public health officials to monitor trends in diagnosis and treatment of particular health issues.
About 26% of the women in the study were younger than 50. Among these younger women, 46% of the breast cancers were first found by a screening mammogram; the other 54% were first found by breast self-exam and/or a breast exam by a medical professional (called a clinical exam in the study).
No matter how old the women were, breast cancers found by a screening mammogram were:
- more likely to be lower stage (0 or 1) than higher stage (2 or 3)
- 41% less likely to be treated with mastectomy (compared to lumpectomy)
- 31% less likely to require chemotherapy (and generally required less aggressive treatment overall)
compared to breast cancer detected by self-exam and/or clinical exam.
While this study wasn't specifically designed to prove the value of mammograms for younger women, the results offer strong evidence that annual screening mammograms starting at age 40 do make sense and ultimately lead to earlier diagnoses and more lives saved. Breast self-exam also makes sense for women of any age.
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, you may want to talk 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.