Breast cancer screenings save lives, so why aren’t all high risk women getting them?

photo by williami

Photo by williami5

With a new government-funded program in place, regular breast screenings for women ages 40-75 are becoming more effective than ever in detecting early stages of breast cancer. Research findings from the BC Cancer Agency from 2012 show a 40 per cent reduction in mortality rate, since 2006, in women ages 40-75 who get regular mammography screenings, but there is still a divide in the high-risk age group about getting regular screenings.

Even with breast cancer awareness highly visible in media, there seems to still be a lack of education about the effectiveness of cancer screening. More conversation is taking place about understanding the disease and the potential risk factors than ever before. Catching breast cancer at its early and most treatable stages is the sole most effective way to reduce death caused by the disease.

According to the BC Cancer Agency website, the Screening Mammography Program (SMP) is a government-funded program, which provides regular mammography screenings to eligible women between the ages of 40 and 75. Laura Roberts, mammography technologist and office manager at X-Ray 505 in Vancouver, says the true importance of screening is “not that it [prevents] the cancer, what it does is help diagnose and treat it early.”

It has proven to be effective in reducing breast cancer deaths in Canada. Roberts notes that according to B.C. cancer research conducted last year, there has been a 20 per net decrease in mortality rate for breast cancer across the nation since 2006, with B.C. leading the country in mortality rate reduction. Despite these impressive numbers, Roberts says the number of women in the high-risk age group getting early screening is “really hit or miss.”

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there in that age group,” Roberts says.

The controversy is within the 40-50 age group. Robert’s recalls U.S. Preventative Task Force (USPTF) findings from 2009 that questioned the effectiveness of mammography screenings. The study also suggested that mammography screenings be done biennially instead of annually. But Roberts says there’s more to the research findings than most people understand:

“This [40-50] age group has more aggressive types of breast cancer, but mammography screenings may not catch it readily because that age group tends to have denser breast tissue,” she said.

Because there have been cases of “more aggressive types breast cancer” missed by mammography in this age group due to denser breast tissue, the scare has created what Roberts calls “more of a division” than an increase in breast cancer screenings.

Photo By Tokeba Library

Photo by Topeka Library

“You can take data from all these different groups, and you can rehash it in all sorts of ways,” Roberts says. “What it comes down to is the people who work within mammography, who know it does save lives. Early diagnosis is the only way to go.”

Ultimately, many women are waiting too long to get screened. Women who have a mother, sister or daughter who have had breast cancer are advised to get screened at least 10 years earlier than the age at which the relative was diagnosised, said Roberts. Often waiting until a lump is present is not a good idea. Roberts says “by the time [lumps are] palpable, they’ve been there for awhile.”

Tracy Chand is the clerical supervisor for the SMP department of the BC Cancer Agency, and she says that there ultimately has been more awareness for at-risk women, despite the controversy.

Chand says that many women had worries about the effects of radiation from x-ray screenings in the past, but today that is not as much of an issue.

“Nowadays, the advertising campaigns explain more in depth about what breast cancer is, and what mammography and breast screenings are about,” she says. “There’s a better understanding for women who are of high-risk.”

Alycia Sundar

Pocket sized fury. A west coast journalism student with a love for food and travel.

1 Comment

  • Avatar
    Reply December 8, 2013

    Cindy St-Laurent

    Unfortunately this is something that all women have to live with and from what I’ve heard the screening process alone is something that can turn people off of doing it due to the pain. I honestly find that as far as what age you should start getting screened is so vague that unless you do a specific search on it you won’t know. I definitely feel that more people should be aware of this, but that awareness will not mean that it will make people do it. Unfortunately you cannot force people to take care of themselves.

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