October is “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month” and an ideal time to dispel some myths about breast cancer while encouraging all women over 40 – and especially those 65 or older – to get annual mammograms.
Studies show that even some physicians are unaware of the importance of mammograms for older women and do not make mammogram referrals often enough after age 65. So, get the facts and take charge of your health!
Myth #1: Older women don’t get breast cancer anymore.
Age is the single greatest risk factor for getting breast cancer other than being a woman! That means as women get older, their risk of breast cancer increases. That’s why they must continue to be screened every year. We only recommend stopping mammograms for women with a very limited life expectancy or who want no treatment after diagnosis. Screening older women for early-stage breast cancer can contribute to longer survival and enhanced quality of life.
Myth #2: Older women don’t need mammograms.
Many women are told they do not need mammograms when they get older. Unfortunately, some women are even told this by their misinformed physicians. In fact, just the opposite is true. Older women face a higher risk of getting breast cancer and should get screening mammograms yearly.
Guidelines from the American Cancer Society:
• Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health.
• Clinical breast exams should be conducted about every three years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women 40 or older.
• Women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and promptly report any changes to their health-care provider. Breast self-exams are an option for women beginning in their 20s.
The American Cancer Society also recommends that some women be screened with MRI in addition to mammograms because of family history, genetic predisposition or certain other factors. However, the number of women who fall into this category is small – less than 2 percent of all women in the United States.
Myth #3: Medicare does not cover annual mammograms.
I hear this concern a lot from my patients, especially in these difficult economic times. In fact, Medicare does cover annual screening mammograms. For elderly women, Medicare Part B provides a preventive service that includes annual mammogram coverage.
Cost should never be a deterrent to getting mammograms. If you do not have insurance, there are many clinics where you can get mammograms at reduced fees. The Venice Family Clinic and Westside Family Health Center are two local facilities that provide affordable medical care, including mammograms, to uninsured or underinsured women in our community.
When completing your to-do list this month, don’t forget to schedule your annual mammogram!
Dr. Sonja Rosen is a board-certified geriatrician with the highly regarded UCLA Geriatrics Program in Santa Monica and medical director of the Geriatrics Unit at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. For more information, call 310.319.4371.