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New study reinforces need for regular mammograms

June 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Just two years ago women were told they didn't have to get mammograms as often as they thought. Now there's a new, significant study that is evidence that mammograms do save lives.

In a 30-year Swedish study, researchers found regular mammography screening cut breast-cancer deaths by a third. Does this finding get rid of the controversy surrounding mammograms?

Experts say we still don't have all the answers. But for some women the issue is crystal clear.

Shannon Rucketi's mom had breast cancer. So Shannon gets mammograms every year like clockwork.

"Last year was the first year in 24 years that I was nine months overdue," said Rucketi.

When she finally went in, doctors discovered early-stage breast cancer.

"Because she was going regularly, hers was picked up in an early stage, and she has an excellent cure rate," said Dr. Deanna Attai, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center.

Dr. Attai says Shannon is an example of how regular mammography can save lives.

But in 2009 millions of women were thrown for a loop when the government released guidelines advising them not to get screening until age 50, and then go every other year. The concern was that regular screening led to unnecessary follow-up tests, anxiety and radiation exposure, and didn't necessarily prevent deaths from breast cancer.

Now the longest-running study of its kind on 133,000 Swedish women finds one life can be saved for every 400 to 500 women screened -- three times higher than previously thought.

"Screening mammography does save lives due to the early detection of breast cancer," said Dr. Attai.

Mammography is a confusing issue and no one study is going to answer every question. Should a woman start at age 40? Should she go every year or every other year?

Dr. Attai says this is a discussion every woman should be having with their doctor.

"She needs to be able to ask these kinds of questions, and have some of this confusing data put into context that makes sense for her," said Attai.

Shannon is glad she never missed an annual screening.

"I have children who depend on me and I want to be there for them. I'm really grateful that I can," said Shannon.

Dr. Attai points out that mammography is done differently in other countries. American doctors often take a top-to-bottom and side-to-side view of the breast, whereas in the Swedish study, only one view was done.

The American Cancer Society recommends yearly screenings starting at age 40.

The study is in the journal Radiology.

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