Most women have heard about the life-saving benefits of yearly mammograms for women ages 40 and older. Multiple research studies have shown that mammograms reduce breast cancer deaths by detecting cancers at earlier, more treatable, stages, noted Roni Talukdar, MD, a breast imaging specialist with Radiologic Associates of Fredericksburg who is the director of the Imaging Center for Women.
Trusted medical groups recommend yearly mammograms, and Medicare and most private insurers cover them.
Yet researchers report that the percentage of U.S. women scheduling yearly mammograms declined in the years following 2009, when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released new and controversial mammogram guidelines.
Dr. Talukdar is particularly troubled by comments from a few doctors covered by the national press who contend mammograms can be scheduled less frequently or perhaps not at all thanks to advances in breast cancer treatment. These doctors are not breast imaging specialists or cancer specialists, and do not have the expertise to comment on breast cancer subjects, he explained.
“Studies show women 40 and older should get mammograms every year,” Dr. Talukdar said. “Mammography is not the most comfortable procedure so comments like this just give patients an out to delay or avoid screening. No physicians who actually deal with breast cancer are against yearly screening mammograms.”
Troubling National Trends
Between 2009 and 2012 the percentage of U.S. women between the ages of 50 and 64 receiving yearly mammograms declined an estimated 6.1% overall, according to a Harvard Medical School study published online Feb. 9 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The decline was even more dramatic for women in their 40s, an estimated 9.9%. The study also noted a drop in the percentage of women receiving mammograms every two years.
The study suggested that controversial recommendations by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force were to blame. In 2009 the task force recommended that women at normal risk of breast cancer begin mammograms at age 50, not 40, and have mammograms every two years versus every year through age 74. Dr. Talukdar believes press comments in recent years by doctors who are unqualified to advise on breast cancer subjects have added to the confusion.
Locally, primary care physicians and OB-GYNs are doing a good job advising women on the need for yearly mammograms, Dr. Talukdar said, but some patients at the Imaging Center for Women – including a few who have come in with palpable lumps – have commented that they thought medical guidelines called for screenings every two years.
Research Supports Mammograms
In general, research shows that the earlier breast cancer is detected and treated, the better the chances of survival. After regular mammogram screening for women began in the mid 1980s, breast cancer death rates dropped significantly, Dr. Talukdar noted. U.S. government statistics indicate that breast cancer deaths for women decreased 34% between 1990 and 2011. Yes, breast cancer treatment advances have increased survival rates but regular mammograms have played an important role, he added.
One question some patients have about mammograms concerns radiation exposure. Dr. Talukdar reassures patients that radiation exposure during a mammogram is very low – about one-half the radiation exposure during a flight from the East Coast to Los Angeles and back.
Above all, Dr. Talukdar wants women to know that mammograms are still the single best way to screen for breast cancer.
“Women at normal risk should start getting yearly mammograms at age 40. Those with clinical symptoms or a close relative who had cancer before age 40 should start sooner. Talk with your primary care or OB-GYN physician to discuss the timing that is right for you,” Dr. Talukdar advised.
Dr. Talukdar, a Board Certified Radiologist with Fellowship Training from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, is one of 10 physicians with Radiologic Associates of Fredericksburg (RAF) who regularly interpret mammograms and care for patients at the Imaging Center for Women in Fredericksburg, a partnership of RAF and Mary Washington Healthcare.