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Experts confused about when women should stop getting mammograms

Nobody looks forward to putting their boobs into a creepy mechanical vice-grip at the doctor’s office, but Canadian women are fortunate to live in a country that offers us free mammograms to screen for breast cancer. Only, nobody seems to know when women should stop getting mammograms. And as women are living longer and healthier lives, many senior women are left feeling confused about how often (if at all) they should get mammograms. 

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The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that women aged 50 to 69 get a mammogram every two years. For those 70 or older, it’s a little less clear. Their advice to older women is simply: “Talk to your doctor about how often you should have a mammogram.” Guidelines regarding breast cancer screening in older women vary province to province, as nobody’s come to a firm agreement on the best approach.

The medical community is divided on how often older women should have mammograms, or if they should even bother (a pretty dismal view in my opinion): “If we pick up a cancer in someone who’s 75 and they die at 76 of something else, did it really matter? That’s really the question here,” Dr. Susan Boolbol — breast surgery chief at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York — told the Associated Press.

Of course, many disagree with Boolbol’s statement. After all, who is anyone to put a cost-benefit analysis on what a year or even months of a senior woman’s life are worth?

Canada isn’t the only country with a mishmash of different expert opinions on how often senior women should get screened. People south of the border lack clear guidelines for mammograms in older women too: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently admitted that they didn’t have the evidence to either recommend whether or not women over 75 years of age should or shouldn’t get mammograms. Why? Researchers simply haven’t studied breast cancer in older women enough.

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“People are taking better care of themselves,” Yale University pathologist Dr. Fattaneh Tavassoli told the Associated Press. “If we don’t start discussing it, it’s going to be more difficult to come up with management approaches for these patients.”

She notes that Yale’s medical centre has found more breast cancer in patients 90 and older. While the center diagnosed only abut one a year in the 1990s, now she says that 8 times a year they’re finding breast cancer in women over 90.

Is the medical community neglecting the health of older women by failing to take a closer look at the needs of senior women when it comes to preventing breast cancer? Let’s let the numbers tell the story: 1 in 4 of the cancers diagnosed in women are breast cancers, and it’s estimated that 1 in 30 Canadian women die a year from breast cancer. Add the fact that Canada has a rapidly aging population according to Statistics Canada — with nearly six million people 65 years of age or older (outnumbering the youth under age 15) — and it couldn’t be clearer that the system is failing to protect a huge percentage of the population.

It’s crucial that researchers take a closer look at the unique needs of aging women when it comes to breast cancer prevention.

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