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Get Your Girls Ready for Their Close-up

By: Denise Foley

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Remember that recommendation that women put off getting their first mammogram until age 50? Well, many experts believe it’s bad advice -- especially since a new study has found that women in their 40s with no family history of breast cancer are just as likely to get breast cancer as those with the disease on the family tree.

That means that if you wait until you’re 50 to get your first mammogram, as recommended, your breast cancer might not be caught until it’s “larger, more difficult to treat and more likely to have spread,” says researcher Stamatia V. Destounis, a radiologist at Elizabeth Wende Breast Care LLC in Rochester, N.Y., who revealed the findings of her study at the recent annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Destounis and her colleagues looked at a decade’s worth of the mammograms of women between 40 and 49 with -- and without -- a history of breast cancer. When they compared the number of new cancers, as well as how many were invasive and had spread, they found that 63.2 percent of women with a family history had developed the disease, as well as a strikingly similar 64 percent of those who had no family history. In addition, an almost identical number in both groups had developed metastatic cancer, meaning the cancer had spread to their lymph nodes.

Cut Your Risk of Death in Half
The American Cancer Society calls for a yearly mammogram starting at age 40. In fact, a study just published in December 2011 found that having just three mammograms reduces the risk of dying from breast cancer by 49 percent. But in 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) -- a group of health experts that has reviewed hundreds of medical studies -- claimed that mammograms before 50 were unnecessary and got widespread press coverage, confusing women.

The USPSTF acknowledged that mammograms save lives. But their expert opinion was that the benefits didn’t outweigh the risks, which include unnecessary biopsies and treatment for non-life-threatening tumors.

Increased risk of death versus an annoying, unnecessary test? Like Destounis, you may think that the task force is “not dealing with reality.” Mammography among 40-somethings has always been spotty and by 2008 was already taking a downward swing, according to statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Applying these new numbers to the equation could lead to an uptick in breast cancer deaths in women who develop cancer in their 40s but don’t discover it until it is literally too late.

My advice: Don’t wait.


Photo: @iStockphoto.com/leaf


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Denise Foley is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

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