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Women should get mammograms before 50, study says

September 9, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
As researchers continue to develop a test detecting the beginnings of breast cancer years before it shows up on a mammogram, the debate over when a woman should start getting mammograms rages on. Harvard University researchers argue waiting until after age 50 is too late.

Harvard researchers looked at more than 600 deaths from breast cancer in the 1990s. Most of these deaths occurred in women who did not get mammograms. Half of the deaths were in women under 50.

"The question is if you had screened those women younger, would it have saved their lives? Young women tend to have more aggressive breast cancer," said Dr. Richard Besser, ABC News chief health and medical editor.

That's why study authors say women should start mammograms before the currently recommended age of 50. Critics question whether it would have saved more of these women's lives. In 2009, a top medical panel established 50 as the starting age for mammograms.

They said younger women had too many false positive tests, leading to unneeded biopsies. The American Cancer Society maintains women should start screening at 40. Besser says women should consider their family history in their decision.

"If you are under 50, think about your family history, check and make sure it's covered, and then decide which way you want to go," said Besser.

Another concern is women under 50, like Susan Burkett, tend to have dense breast tissue, which makes cancer difficult to detect.

"You can have a mammogram that's negative for nothing is suspicious, and by the time you go back for your next one, there could be something there," said Burkett.

Now, Dr. Debra Dube with Internal Medicine Connection says a new test known as ForeCYTE could help Burkett and millions like her.

"It's absolutely huge. To me, this is a new frontier," said Dube.

Much like a Pap smear, the test detects pre-cancerous cells up to eight years before cancer arises.

"So that we can treat much earlier at the very beginning of a tumor formation," said Dube.

Unlike a mammogram, the test is basically painless.

Doctors use a device similar to a breast pump to collect cells that line the milk ducts. The cells are then sent to a lab for analysis, helping women like Burkett make an informed decision about her future.

"It's peace of mind. I think it's more than anything peace of mind," said Burkett.

Women between 18 and 39 can also take the ForeCYTE test. The screening is covered by Medicare and private insurance.


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