Health Watch -- Don't Stop the Mammograms

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The women most at risk for breast cancer may be the least likely to have mammograms to detect the disease.

Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death among women, and most deaths from breast cancer occur in women over 65. At the age of 40, a woman's risk of developing breast cancer during the next ten years is 1.5 percent. At the age of 70, that risk goes up to 4 percent. Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say that means an annual mammogram is especially critical for older women.

Medicare covers routine mammograms, but Dr. Marilyn Leitch, medical director of the UT Southwestern Center for Breast Care, says many older women don't get mammograms for a variety of reasons. The facility may be inconvenient. Older women may have the mistaken assumption that they're less at risk because media attention tends to focus on younger women with breast cancer. Younger women are more likely to ask their doctors for a mammogram, while older women are more likely to get a mammogram if their doctor recommends it.

Mammograms are especially accurate in helping diagnose breast cancer in older women because their breast tissue is less dense, helping tumors show up better. A mammogram can detect cancer in its earliest stages, even before a lump can be felt. The earlier a cancer is diagnosed, the better your chances of survival and recovery. With early diagnosis, you also are more likely to save your breast and avoid chemotherapy.