Doctors hope the latest study out of Harvard's Medical School will help clear up some of the confusion over mammography. When should women begin regular screenings for breast cancer?
The U.S. Preventive Task Force says average women with no risks should have a baseline every other year beginning at age 50, but the American Cancer Society says age 40 for a baseline, with mammograms annually. The newly published study shows the latter could save more lives.
Doctors reviewed invasive breast cancer cases at several Boston hospitals between 1990 and 1999.
"And when they looked at that, 70 percent of the people who died of breast cancer were in the group that were never screened or had a mammogram more than two years before their diagnosis," said Dr. Sally Herschorn, a radiologist at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.
And of those who died, the majority were women under age 50. Doctors say that's because of a significant lack of mammography in younger women. It's not perfect and it doesn't guarantee a woman won't die of breast cancer, but if a tumor is found earlier rather than later, they say survival improves.
"There has long been evidence that larger tumors and more aggressive tumors have higher mortality and the earlier we diagnose a breast cancer, the easier it is to treat," Herschorn said. "Now, of course, we have better treatments and even people with large tumors, most patients, are doing very well. However, you improve your chances and you go through less aggressive treatment if you can diagnose it earlier, and that's what screening is all about."
As for Vermont women, Herschorn says Fletcher Allen follows the Cancer Society's recommendation, urging baseline mammograms at age 40, with follow-ups every year.
Herschorn stresses that the age 40 recommendation is for women not considered high risk. The Harvard study was recently published in the journal Cancer.
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