In the news media lately, we have heard reports that regular mammograms are not as important as we were once led to believe. We hear that monthly breast exams done at home are effective, and a good balance for those with lower risk of breast cancer.
It’s important to note, however, that women in their 60s and beyond can indeed benefit from regular mammograms, and these can indeed save lives. This leads us to wonder, “Why is mammography a better test for older women?”
As CNN Health contributor Dr. Otis Brawley brings out, there are two reasons.
- It is easier to identify cancer in mammograms of women over 60, and
- It is more likely that senior women will have cancer.
Why is cancer easier to detect in an older woman?
In an mammogram or x-ray of the breast, cancer shows up as a white mass. Since young breasts have denser tissue than older breasts, the cancer does not stand out in contrast to breast tissue; it all appears white. As women age and have mammograms, cancer appears as white against a light to dark grey background of tissue. By the time a woman is 60 or 70 years old, the breast tissue appears black on an x-ray, and of course, the cancer still appears white. Which will be the easier cancer to spot? It’s not difficult to tell that cancer is much easier to diagnose for older women.
Is a mammogram really more useful for older women?
Statistics show clearly that older women have a greater chance of having cancer than a younger woman. One in 42 women will develop breast cancer in their 60s, whereas in their 50s, only one in 28 women will do so. Therefore, it is a common occurrence that mammograms in younger women show lumps or masses that are harmless. Still, many biopsies are performed and procedures are carried out that are ultimately unnecessary and carry with them additional risk, as well as stress to the patient.
In older women, however, the numbers are motivating: breast cancer screening reduces risk of death by up to 35% in women aged 50 to 70 years. It is a unfortunate truth though, that those who have bad experiences with a mammogram in their 30s or 40s are much more likely to refuse a mammogram in their 50s and 60s, when the test becomes truly useful and effective.
Are you caring for an older woman who has not had a mammogram in some time? Then talk with her physician about the effectiveness of this screening tool, and whether or not it is right for her at her stage of life. If she is resistant to submit to the mammogram because of previous bad experience, perhaps the above information can help her make an informed decision at this stage in her life.