Skip Your Annual Mammogram? For Older Women, It's an Option

Patient Expert

"Beginning at age 40, every woman should have an annual mammogram to screen for breast cancer." How many times have you heard that message over the course of your life? By the time you're a senior citizen, it's as ingrained in your psyche as taking a daily vitamin, or getting a 3,000-mile oil change in your car. Now, with doubt cast on the need for both daily vitamins and 3,000-mile oil changes, mammograms are coming under similar scrutiny. Do you really need a mammogram every year, once you reach retirement age?

A lot changes when you reach your 60th birthday.

When you were a kid, 60 seemed ancient. Over-60 was your fifth-grade teacher, with her chunky black shoes, dress below the knees, and gray hair in a tight bun.

Today, 60 may be approaching faster than you like (as the message in your car mirror says, "Objects are closer than they appear.") Or perhaps you've already left 60 in the dust, and are heading towards Social Security and Medicare.

Scary, isn't it? Who among us doesn't wonder how we've managed to become a senior citizen while still feeling like a 35-year-old - emotionally if not physically?

It's important to remain flexible as you age, in both body and mind. Change is always a challenge, but becomes more so the older we get.

Energy diminishes; our world shrinks. Sometimes all we want to do is hold tight to what's familiar, afraid to color outside the lines; at age 60, most of us lack the confidence and bravado we had at age 25.

But it doesn't have to be that way. I'll be 60 in a few short weeks; I still hold down two jobs, and the vast majority of those with whom I work are younger than I - much younger, in most cases. I keep up with the latest technology (have you tried Instagram?); I need less sleep, so am able to move at a pace I enjoy, while still keeping up with the 20-somethings around me.

I embrace change; it's inevitable, so why not welcome it? New initiatives are exciting; they fill me with energy and hope for the future. Still, I occasionally find myself clinging to "the old ways" like a kind of security blanket - a link to the past, familiar and unthreatening.

Thus it's with mixed feelings I read a new study released recently suggesting that a few years from now, I might want to start forgoing my yearly mammogram.

Skip my mammogram? Talk about letting go of my security blanket"

It seems this University of California study followed women age 66 to 89 for 7 years, compiling data on how many were diagnosed with breast cancer; what their screening history had been, and how advanced their breast cancer was at detection.

OK, let's stop for a moment to clarify an important point. Researchers have gradually begun to accept the fact that there are three basic "styles" of breast cancer: cancer that grows so slowly that it's not deadly, and never will be; cancer that grows slowly enough that it can be detected before it grows deadly (and the woman's life potentially saved); and cancer that's so aggressive that even early detection can't save the patient's life.

Results of the new California study show that women who had a mammogram every 2 years, rather than every year, had no more of those "style #2" cancers - the ones that can be successfully treated - than those screened every year.

According to chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society Dr. Otis Brawley, commenting on the study, ""Screening every year is not going to find any more of these cancers that are growing slow enough to be detected, but fast enough if they weren't detected they would kill." (Pittman, 2013)

So, you don't really need a mammogram every year once you pass age 66; but what's the harm in getting one anyway, just to be safe?

False positives. Significantly more women who are screened every year have false positive readings, with subsequent additional mammograms, ultrasounds, or even biopsies, than women screened every other year. These false positives are not only emotionally distressing and expensive; they can potentially harm a woman's health, particularly if she needs a biopsy.

Are you going to be 66 soon? Then it's time to think about your approach to breast cancer screening.

You can certainly choose to continue your yearly mammogram. But if you choose to move to an every-other-year schedule, do so with a clear conscience: you're not putting yourself at any greater risk of being diagnosed with advanced breast cancer than those women sticking to their traditional yearly schedule.


Doheny, K. (2013, February 05). For older women, mammograms every 2 years found as good as annual test. Retrieved from

Pittman, G. (2013, February 07). Longer span between mammograms okay for older women. Retrieved from