If you ask any adult woman what a mammogram is, she’ll probably know. The machine that compresses the breast in order to detect cancer is no secret that’s for sure. It’s garnered a ton of publicity over the decades. However, over the past few years, the publicity has focused on a bitter dispute about how effective the test truly is in saving lives.
This dispute really began back in the ’80s, when the National Cancer Institute questioned the benefits of administering mammograms to women over the age of 40. Were mammograms just a waste of money? Or by not performing a mammogram, were doctors wasting an opportunity to detect breast cancer early and save lives?
Well, a new study says that the experts who believed in mammograms from the beginning were right. This includes experts such as Dr. Carolyn Runowicz from the University of Connecticut, who is the incoming president of the American Cancer Society. Very recently, she told The New York Times that the declining death rate from breast cancer wouldn’t be falling at all if weren’t for mammograms. The decline is, “…due to better screening, better use of screening,” she said.
Indeed it is. While all women should perform self-exams every so often, a mammogram is a far superior method for detecting tumors that may be too small to detect with a bare hand. This is the greatest benefit of a mammogram, as detecting cancer early makes for a much more uplifting prognosis. So, about that new study — published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, it tried to see why the breast-cancer death rate dropped by a huge 24% from 1990 to 2000. Was it mammograms or new drugs that could be held accountable for this improvement?
The National Cancer Institute asked seven research teams to answer the question. What they found out was that the death rate didn’t change from 1975 to 1990, with about 50 out of every 100,000 older women developing breast cancer. But in 2000, that rate dropped to 38 women in 100,000. This drop coincided with a rising use of mammograms; in 2000 about 70% of women had one. For the researchers to figure it all out, they turned to computer models of the disease, the detection methods, and the courses of treatment that were administered.
From their findings, the researchers concluded that the death rate was falling because both mammograms and treatment were having a positive effect. And they said that anywhere from 30% to 65% of the decrease was directly caused by doctors who used more mammograms on their patients. This is the first major study ever to single out the benefits of mammograms independent of drug therapy.
Today, eight out of 10 women over the age of 40 get mammograms. If you are one of them, rest assured that it is well worth it.