The death of Elizabeth Edwards is a sad reminder of the importance of annual mammograms to detect breast cancer and the tendency for women to put their personal health at risk because of the many responsibilities they have in the family, according to Avice O’Connell, M.D., F.A.C.R, associate professor of Imaging Sciences. at the University of Rochester Medical Center and director of women’s imaging for the Comprehensive Breast Care Center at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center at URMC.
That’s what happened to Edwards, who was busy supporting her husband’s bid for the presidency and let her routine mammogram lapse. Edwards shared her personal story with O’Connell, who also serves as director of the Highland Breast Imaging Center, three years ago when she came to Rochester to deliver the keynote address at the Highland Hospital Breast Cancer Education Luncheon, one of the community’s largest fund-raisers to support breast cancer care.
“I knew that her breast cancer was detected after she found a lump,” O’Connell recalled. “I asked her if she had been faithful with her annual mammograms and she said she had not, that she had cancelled numerous times because of her family’s hectic schedule. Nothing is worth ignoring your health and facing serious consequences, not even the presidency of the United States.”
Women over the age of 40, or those of a younger age who have a family history of breast cancer, are recommended to get an annual mammogram screening.
“Early detection offers the best chance at survival of breast cancer, and can prevent the need for more invasive, more aggressive medical treatment,” O’Connell said. “Studies have shown that early detection through the annual mammogram can reduce the likelihood of mastectomy by more than half. Women need to make time to get those screenings and make their own health a priority.”
In recent years, there has been confusion and controversy about when and how often women should be screened for breast cancer. A 2009 government task force report reported most women don’t need annual mammograms, a recommendation vigorously challenged by breast cancer experts. Many groups, including the American Cancer Society, strongly disagreed and continue to advise annual mammograms starting at 40. In addition, the 2009 task force recommendation has been dismissed in the new federal health care bill, returning to the guidelines from the 2002 task force which recommended annual screenings.
That confusion, combined with the tendency of many women to ignore their own health needs, leads to troubling findings. A recent report generated from a review of insurance claims from 1.5 million women between 2006 through 2009 shows that only half of women over 40 get mammograms, even when they have insurance that covers screening.
“There is no reason for any women in the greater Rochester area to not have their annual mammogram,” O’Connell said.
The Cancer Service Program of Monroe County provides free screenings for women who do not have insurance, or are under-insured, and mammograms are fully covered by insurance providers in this region.
Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death in women, and nearly 40,000 are expected to die of the disease in 2010, according to American Cancer Society statistics. On average, one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime.
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