An alarming new study shows that for the first time in decades, fewer women are getting mammograms to screen for breast cancer. According to a study by the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the overall rate of women having mammograms fell four percent between 2000 and 2005.
The biggest drop--6.8 percent--was among women 50 to 64, the age group most likely to benefit. There was also a steep drop--6.3 percent among more affluent women-- the group that can most easily afford the tests. Researchers are concerned that this trend could lead to more deaths from breast cancer.
About 200,000 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 40,000 women a year die from it, make the disease the second leading cause of cancer and cancer death among women. No one is sure why fewer women are undergoing the screening test. The theories include: Fewer fears about dying from the disease as survival rates rise. Long waiting times to get appointments. The drop in hormone use after menopause. And the debate over the risks and benefits of mammograms.
If I had to guess, I would say that the last factor is probably the strongest deterrent. The very public controversy over the benefits of mammography--the argument that the risk of unnecessary treatment from false alarms may outweigh the benefits for women at low risk of getting the disease--is probably used as a rationalization by some women to put off the test.
I doubt I ever would have found that argument convincing, even before having breast cancer myself. And Elizabeth Edwards’s recent revelation that she put off having mammograms until it was too late, and is thus paying the ultimate price, is a poignant example of the risks of not being vigilant about your own health care. I hope the news about this study serves as a wake-up call to all the women out there who are due, or overdue, for an annual mammogram. If you belong to that group, please make an appointment, today.