Health Team

Less Breast Cancer, or Fewer Women Getting Exams?

Posted October 1, 2007 4:59 p.m. EDT
Updated October 1, 2007 11:19 p.m. EDT

Good news can be misleading, the American Cancer Society warned of its bi-annual report on breast cancer.

Fewer women appear to be diagnosed with breast cancer, but the lower incidence might result from fewer women getting annual mammograms that would reveal cancer, the ACS said.

Most women should get a baseline mammogram at age 35 and annual mammograms from age 40, doctors agree. Exceeding those recommendations paid off for Charmeine Turner.

Turner began annual screenings when she was 30. She knew she was at risk, because her mother had fought breast cancer 18 years earlier.

Three years ago, a screening revealed atypical cells that her doctor wanted her to watch. Turner increased the frequency of her screenings.

"I had been getting mammograms for about three years at least every six months," she said. Those extra screenings led to the early detection of a tumor in March.

Dr. Lee Wilke, a surgeon at Duke Medical Center, performed a mastectomy, and Turner, at 48, is in the process of breast reconstruction.

ACS's report also shows women's mortality rate from breast cancer trending downward 2 percent every year. However, the death rate among black women did not go down as much for white and Hispanic women.

The incidence of breast cancer among black women is lower, but they are more likely to get a more aggressive type of cancer if they do become ill, which makes screening even more vital.

"Even since I've had my breast cancer and my surgery, I've talked to several of my friends, and they're way over the age of 40, and they still have not had their first mammogram," Turner said.

Wilke said early detection of cancer, like Turner's, provides more treatment options. Treatment can be tailored to a patient's genetic profile, personal biology and tumor type.

Such treatment is one reason why fewer women die from breast cancer – and a good reason why more women should be screened, Wilke said.

"So, as we get older, women have an increased need for mammography, and it should not be something we eliminate from their routine care," he said.