Regular Mammograms Save Lives

Organized mammographic screening reduces the number of breast cancer deaths by 63%, according to a study presented by Robert A. Smith, Ph. D. Smith, director of cancer screening for the American Cancer Society, presented the study findings at the Cancer Society’s Science Writers Seminar in California on April 23, 2001.
In a long-range study conducted in Sweden, all women in two counties between the ages of 40 and 69 received an invitation for a free mammogram every two years. Between 1988 and 1996, among women who got mammograms the death rate declined 63%. This decline is significantly higher than the 30% reported in previous studies of the effectiveness of mammograms, Smith says in a news story on the ACS Web site.

“What I hope these data will do is, first, refute some recent studies that are inexplicably calling into question the very clearly demonstrated benefits of mammograms,” Smith says in the ACS news story. He adds that those studies had flawed methodology: their study periods were too short, and the results did not filter out deaths caused by cancer discovered before the mammographic screening started.

Smith says that screening mammograms save lives by reducing the number of cases of advanced cancer. Regular screening means earlier discovery of cancer. “We find breast cancer earlier,” Smith says. “That way we can treat it earlier. By treating it early, before it has a chance to spread, we can save lives.”

The Swedish study has been going on for 29 years. During the study, women have been regularly invited to receive free mammograms. Women who did not respond to the first invitation received a reminder that they could receive the free service. The United States, because of its decentralized system of medical delivery, has no way to perform a similar invitational program, Smith says.

However, Smith adds, in the U.S., HMOs and other insurers are encouraging women to have regular mammograms. Since one criterion that employers use in evaluating a health care plan is the number of women over the age of 50 in the plan who have had a mammogram, HMOs and insurers have an incentive to notify women about the benefits of such screening.

According to the ACS news story, all states except Utah require insurers and HMOs to cover the cost of mammograms. Medicare and Medicaid also pay for this screening.