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Mammograms May Cut Breast Cancer Deaths in Half

Dutch Study Shows That Regular Mammograms Do Save Lives, Particulary for Older Women
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By Sonya Collins
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 6, 2011 -- Despite the controversies over mammograms, the bottom line is they still save lives in women aged 50 to 75. A new Dutch study shows the scan reduced the risk of death from breast cancer in this age group by almost half.

Women between 50 and 75 years old who had at least three mammograms in the Netherlands national screening program before they were diagnosed with breast cancer were 49% less likely to die of the disease, according to the study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

“Our program invites women between 50 and 75 for free screening every two years. And that reduces the risk of death from breast cancer,” says researcher Suzie Otto, PhD.

Women aged 70 to 75 benefited the most from mammograms, with an 84% reduction in breast cancer deaths. The screening reduced breast cancer deaths by 39% in women aged 50-69.

Stage IV tumors -- defined as invasive breast cancer that has spread beyond the breast to other organs -- were also far less frequent in women whose cancer was detected through a mammogram. Among women with breast cancer who had not had mammograms, nearly 30% had stage IV tumors. Only 5% of women whose breast cancer was detected by mammogram had stage IV tumors.

Results May Differ Some in U.S.

Mammograms may not reduce death as significantly in the U.S. because of major differences between U.S. and European screening practices. 

However, “these results do make us all feel good about our recommendations for screening women in their 50s and 60s,” says Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. “I wouldn’t take the 49% [study finding] too much to heart, but it does show that screening does save lives.”

The high reduction in death in the Dutch study can be attributed to the efficiency of European screening programs. “It is a well-oiled machine,” Brawley says. “Here, some women go from one mammography center to another, or they get them done on a van, or old mammograms can’t be found for comparison. That doesn’t happen in the Dutch system.”

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