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More Than 500,000 Lives Saved in Three Decades

Updated: May 16, 2019

Since 1989, the use of screening mammograms and improved treatment have averted more than half a million breast cancer deaths, according to a study published online in CANCER, a journal of the American Cancer Society. Screening mammograms allow x-ray images to check for tumors or microcalcifications, which are calcium deposits in the breast that can signal cancer.

Screening mammograms became widely available in the mid-1980s, and since that time, breast cancer treatment has improved with the development of various effective therapies for the disease.

Researchers from the Colorado School of Medicine, Duke University Medical Center, and the University of Michigan Health System examined breast cancer mortality data and population data from 40- to 84-year-old women over the past three decades. They found that cumulative breast cancer deaths averted from 1990 to 2015 ranged from more than 305,000 women to more than 483,000 women, depending on different background mortality assumptions.

Results were extrapolated to 2018 to show that cumulative breast cancer deaths averted since 1989 ranged from 384,000 to 614,500. When considering 2018 alone, an estimated 27,083 to 45,726 breast cancer deaths were averted. The investigators calculated that mammography and improved treatment decreased the expected mortality rate of breast cancer in 2018 by 45.3 to 58.3 percent.

While some reviews have pointed to risks of mammography being call-backs by physicians' offices for additional imaging or biopsies to determine whether a woman may have cancer, R. Edward Hendrick, PhD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said the study provides evidence of the effectiveness of the combination of early detection and modern breast cancer treatment to avert breast cancer deaths.

Hendrick hopes that the study findings will have a positive influence on the habits of U.S. women; he says that only about half of them over the age of 40 receive regular screening mammography.

"The best possible long-term effect of our findings would be to help women recognize that early detection and modern, personalized breast cancer treatment saves lives and to encourage more women to get screened annually starting at age 40," Hendrick says.

The study, "Breast Cancer Deaths Averted Over Three Decades," by Hendrick, Jay A. Baker, and Mark A. Helvie, was published online in CANCER.

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