New study shows mammograms under 50 save lives

Tuesday September 10, 2013

A new study from Harvard University shows mammograms before age 50 could dramatically cut deaths from breast cancer.

The study, published in the journal Cancer, showed the majority of deaths resulting from breast cancer occur in younger women who do not have regular mammograms. Researchers looked at the cases of 7,301 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1990 and 1999, checking their medical records until 2007. They found that out of 609 confirmed breast cancer deaths, 395 women — 71% — were unscreened (i.e. it had been more than two years since their last mammogram (6%), or they'd never had a mammogram (65%). 

Half (50%) of the breast cancer deaths in the study were in women younger than 50. Only 13% of breast cancer deaths occurred in women 70 or older. The women diagnosed with breast cancer who then died were a median age of 49 at diagnosis. Those who died from any other cause had a median diagnosis age of 72.

Dr Blake Cady, who led the study, said his team’s findings support the idea that screenings should start sooner rather than later. “I have watched the mortality rate from breast cancer fall from 50 percent in the 1960s to 9.2 percent today with the advent of early detection with mammography,” said Cady, who added that he recommends his patients get yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. According to ABC News, Cady said, “To a certain extent [the study results are] intuitive because younger women don’t get screened. Without screening, they’re just like the women in the 1960s who died without ever knowing they had breast cancer.”

Dr Cady summarised his findings as follows: "The biological nature of breast cancer in young women is more aggressive, while breast cancer in older women tends to be more indolent. This suggests that less frequent screening in older women, but more frequent screening in younger women, may be more biologically based, practical, and cost effective."

The New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation recommends annual mammograms for women aged 40-49, then every two years from age 50.

"We welcome this new study, which reinforces what we already know here in New Zealand, that early detection saves lives," said Van Henderson, chief executive of the NZBCF.

An abstract of the study is available here.