Study: Mammograms before 50 could save lives

September 9, 2013 7:05:44 PM PDT
A new Harvard study finds that mammograms done before the age of 50 could save lives. It's been a controversial issue. One group insists routine breast cancer screenings should begin at age 50 -- and not before.

As one person put it, the hornet's nest has been prodded again. For years, a debate has gone on about when women should begin getting mammograms and this new study is expected to make doctors and patients rethink when this kind of screening should be done.

It was just four years ago that women were told to wait until 50 to get a mammogram. That recommendation came from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, but few follow that recommendation.

"My doctor said to do it at 38 which will be doing this year," said one woman we spoke to.

"I am from Brazil and in Brazil they recommend 35," said another.

At the time researchers argued that there were too many unnecessary biopsies and treatments because of all the false positive results. But now Harvard University researchers found that mammograms before 50 could dramatically cut deaths from breast cancer.

Researchers identified 7,300 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1990 and 1999 and tracked their cases for several years until 2007. A little more than 600 of them died. The majority had not had a mammogram. Half of those who died were younger than 50.

Rebecca Mankey said a mammogram at age 40 confirmed the lump on her breast was cancer. She told us, "Who knows how long I had the cancer before I found it. But I feel very lucky that I found it."

The American Cancer Society still maintains that women should get mammograms starting at age 40, once every year.

Dr. Jessica Leung is the medical director of the Breast Health Center at California Pacific Medical Center. She agrees starting to screen early saves lives.

"It's not perfect and you need to do a biopsy of benign lesions sometimes in order to find cancers at the very, very early stages when they are treatable, curable," said Leung.

However, Breast Cancer Connections in Palo Alto says a mammogram should not be based on a person's age.

"It's all based on that person's medical history and so that's why talking to your doctor about what the best screening is for them is that thing we can suggest," said Rina Bello from Breast Cancer Connections.

The study suggests that with proper screening the breast cancer mortality could go down to less than 10 percent over the next 10 years and as low as five percent by 2030.


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