VIEWPOINT: Annual Mammograms Best Way to Catch Breast Cancer Early, Experts Say

By Adam Hochron
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Despite breast cancer being one of the most common cancers among women in the United States, there are still questions about when and how often women should be screened. A recent study presented at the Radiological Society of North America’s 2019 Annual Meeting showed that annual mammograms have more benefits than a longer duration between screenings.

Study presenter Sarah Moorman, MD, of Michigan Medicine told MD /alert that while there is disagreement among professional societies and government agencies about how breast cancer screening should work, their data show that screening more often is more effective. One of the most significant benefits, she said, was the ability to catch smaller tumors, which translates to using less invasive treatment options. 

Doctor and Patient. Source: Getty Images

“I hope our study can help inform both patients and providers to help them make a choice about what’s best for them as far as annual or biannual screening,” Moorman said. 

M. Michele Blackwood, MD, from the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey said that Moorman and colleagues’ results were “not surprising,” but should go a long way in reassuring both doctors and patients about how best to proceed with screening. 

“If you look under the hood at least once a year, you’ll find a cancer that could have grown in that year,” she said. “We do know that breast cancers can grow or begin to grow within a year of screening.”

Despite multiple studies looking at the issue from a variety of angles, Blackwood said that breast cancer’s rapid onset has only served to add confusion to screening strategies, rather than provide a definitive answer, which she said Moorman’s study did. 

“I think it’s a great study to try and prove the point of what we know in the breast cancer world, which is that yearly mammograms truly do save lives,” she said. 

“It’s amazing when you get clarity like that because in the context of patient care it makes a huge difference. Patients feel comfortable; doctors feel comfortable; surgeons certainly feel more comfortable. Everybody wants guidelines that actually show benefit, and this one certainly did.”

Not only are patients confused about when and how often to be screened, but Blackwood said some are “blasé” about the need for early screening, knowing that even more advanced cancers can be successfully treated.

“The reality is that if we start at a young age, particularly if it tends to run in the family, there’s a family history, or there’s a gene mutation, that we’re going to find these cancers earlier,” she said. 

Even with a study like this to lean on, Blackwood said it is unlikely to build consensus among clinicians. 

“Consensus is a hard thing to build. It’s a hard thing to build in any world, including the medical world,” she said. “The good news is the more evidence we build like this, and the more women are empowered to hear this kind of information, the better off we all are at trying to build a consensus.”

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