Mammograms, Breast Cancer Treatment Advances Have Saved Hundreds of Thousands of Lives in Last 30 Years

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Since 1989, more than half a million breast cancer deaths have been prevented in the United States, thanks to mammography and improvements in treatment, according to American Cancer Society estimates.

The study was published online on Feb. 11, 2019, by the journal Cancer. Read the abstract of “Breast cancer deaths averted over 3 decades.”

How the study was done

Screening mammograms to detect breast cancer became widely available in the mid-1980s. Since that time, a number of advances have been made in breast cancer treatment, including the development of:

  • targeted therapies such as Herceptin (chemical name: trastuzumab) and other anti-HER2 medicines
  • PARP inhibitors to treat metastatic disease with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation
  • aromatase inhibitors to treat hormone-receptor-positive disease

So the researchers wanted to know how these two factors have influenced the number of women who died from breast cancer.

To do the study, the researchers analyzed information in the National Cancer Institute’s SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) databases. The SEER databases are large registries of cancer cases from sources throughout the United States maintained by the National Institutes of Health.

The researchers looked at information on the number of women who died from breast cancer, as well as the population of women aged 40 to 84 in the United States, from 1989 to the present.

From 1990 to 2015, the number of breast cancer deaths prevented ranged from more than 305,000 women to more than 483,000 women. When the researchers extended the estimates to 2018, the total number of breast cancer deaths prevented since 1989 ranged from 384,046 to 614,484. For 2018 alone, 27,083 to 45,726 breast cancer deaths were prevented.

"Recent reviews of mammography screening have focused media attention on some of the risks of mammography screening, such as call-backs for additional imaging and breast biopsies, downplaying the most important aspect of screening — that finding and treating breast cancer early saves women's lives,” said R. Edward Hendrick, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Our study provides evidence of just how effective the combination of early detection and modern breast cancer treatment have been in averting breast cancer deaths.

"The best possible long-term effect of our findings would be to help women recognize that early detection and modern, personalized breast cancer treatment saves lives and to encourage more women to get screened annually starting at age 40," he added.

What this means for you

At Breastcancer.org, we believe that a woman’s best chance for early detection of breast cancer requires coordination of our current screening tools:

  • high-quality mammography
  • clinical breast exam
  • breast self-exam

To not use all three tools is a missed opportunity for early detection.

The reality is that every woman is at risk for breast cancer, and this risk tends to increase over time. It’s important to understand and regularly update your health information related to breast cancer risk throughout your life with your doctor.

To get the conversation started, here are some points to talk to your doctor about:

  • family history of breast or other related cancers (ovarian, melanoma)
  • any test results for abnormal genes linked to a high risk of breast cancer
  • results of past breast biopsies, even if they were benign
  • personal history of being treated with radiation to the face and/or chest before age 30
  • breast density
  • weight, if you’re overweight or obese
  • level of physical activity
  • any use of postmenopausal combined hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
  • alcohol consumption, if you regularly drink more than 3 alcoholic beverages per week
  • the amount of processed food and trans fats you eat
  • your smoking history
  • whether or not you had a full-term pregnancy or breastfed

Breastcancer.org stands by its recommendation that all women have mammograms annually starting at age 40 and continuing as long as she is in good health and would want the breast cancer to be treated. The results of this study strongly support that recommendation. We also believe that monthly breast self-exam and annual physical exams by a doctor are essential parts of an overall breast cancer screening strategy.

If you’re at high risk for breast cancer, you should talk to your doctor about starting annual mammograms at a younger age and consider other screening tools (such as MRI or ultrasound) to maximize the opportunity for early detection.

For more information on mammograms, including where to get one and the benefits and risks, visit the Breastcancer.org Mammograms page.

Written by: Jamie DePolo, senior editor

Reviewed by: Brian Wojciechowski, M.D., medical adviser


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