Screening mammograms are one of the best ways to diagnose breast cancer early, when it's most treatable. A large study confirmed the benefits of regular mammograms. This study also emphasized that there is no upper age limit for mammograms.
More than 12,000 women age 80 or older participated in this study. Of the women diagnosed with breast cancer, those who had regular mammograms (at least three mammograms in the 5 years before being diagnosed) were more likely to be diagnosed with early-stage disease. Women who did not have regular mammograms (zero, one or two mammograms in the 5 years before diagnosis) were more likely to be diagnosed with later-stage disease.
- 68% of women who had regular mammograms were diagnosed with stage I breast cancer
- 56% of women who got mammograms irregularly and 33% of women who DIDN'T get mammograms were diagnosed with stage I disease
- 32% of women who had regular mammograms were diagnosed with stage II, III or IV breast cancer
- 44% of women who got mammograms irregularly and 67% of women who DIDN'T get mammograms were diagnosed with stage II, III or IV disease
Women older than 80 who got regular mammograms also were more likely to be living 5 years after being diagnosed compared to women who didn't get regular mammograms.
Despite the benefits of regular mammograms for women age 80 and older, the researchers found that only about 20% of these women actually got regular mammograms. These results agree with other research showing that women are less likely to get annual mammograms as they age.
There probably are many reasons why older women get fewer mammograms:
- An overall decline in health, as well as other medical problems that may seem more serious. This may make it harder for older women to schedule and get to a mammogram facility. It also may make mammograms seem less important. The researchers found that women over 80 who didn't get regular mammograms were more likely to die from causes other than breast cancer than women who got regular mammograms. This suggests that those who didn't get mammograms may have had other serious medical problems.
- Decreased mobility. Transportation problems or physical limitations may make it hard to get to and from a mammogram center.
- Real or perceived financial barriers. For women on a fixed income, the cost of transportation and parking can make it hard to get regular mammograms.
- A lack of knowledge. Women over 80 may think that if they haven't been diagnosed with breast cancer yet they probably won't be. This is not true. Almost 20% of all breast cancer diagnoses in the United States are in women over 80.
- A loss of hope. Women over 80 may believe they only have a few years left to live, so detecting breast cancer early won't mean much for them. Other women might think that they wouldn't want to have treatment at their age or that treatment wouldn't work, so see no need to be screened for breast cancer.
If you (or someone you love) are age 80 or older and haven't been getting regular mammograms, you might want to think about why. Some of the obstacles may be valid, but many of them can overcome with help. Remember:
- Breast cancer can and does happen in older women.
- Breast cancer can be treated effectively in older women.
- No matter how old you are, mammograms, along with breast self-exams and exams by a doctor, can diagnose breast cancer early, when it's most treatable.
- Age shouldn't be why you don't do all that you can to stay as healthy as possible.
If you're having problems getting regular mammograms, talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team to see how you can get back on track. There's only one of you and you deserve the best care possible for your entire life.
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