Mammograms: Best Detection Tool

Three studies are out with new information about both detection and treatment of breast cancer. The Early Show Dr. Emily Senay offers the details.

A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that women whose breast cancer is detected by mammography have a lower risk of the cancer recurring compared to those who discover a tumor by other means - such as self breast exams. In fact, the study showed that women with cancerous tumors detected through other means had a 90 percent higher risk of the disease recurring elsewhere in their bodies within a decade.

The theory is that in many cases, mammograms are able to find much smaller tumors - earlier than you'd be able to find with a manual breast exam. Also, more breast cancers are being detected by mammography screening as the procedure is becoming more and more common.

Doctors are finding them much earlier and, therefore, they're able to treat them earlier, so the prognosis is better. But that's just a theory - it's not completely clear why the outcome is so much better.

There's also news about treatment. The standard treatment is a lumpectomy followed by the drug Tamoxifen and radiation, and that radiation can cause some painful side effects. The good news is that two new studies in the the New England Journal of Medicine found that many older women with early breast cancer can safely skip radiation after having a lump removed. Most younger women should still undergo radiation because it has been proven to significantly help prevent relapses, but it seems breast cancer grows so slowly in older women that many can forgo radiation altogether with little risk of a relapse.

Going without radiation is a giant step. With tomixifen and radiation, women over 70 have very little chance of a relapse, and with tomixifen alone and no radiation, the chances of relapse only crept up a tiny bit. The risk is very small even without going through radiation. Of course, this goes on a case-by-case basis. Each woman has to discuss her personal situation with her doctor, but the estimate is that these findings could clear the way for up to 40,000 women a year in the United States alone to consider skipping radiation. These would all be women 70 and older.

Now, in one of these studies, researchers confirmed that age makes a real difference. They separated women in their 50s and women over 60. The relapse rate for women in their 50s was 6 percent, compared to women over 60, where the relapse rate was noticibly lower at 3.5 percent.

However, it's important to stress that the majority of women benefit from radiation, and the magnitude of the benefit is enough to warrant the side effects. This study just gives doctors the option of skipping radiation for an older patient if the radiation side effects are particularly difficult for her. A woman who is terrified of dying of cancer wants to do everything she can to prevent the cancer from coming back - and that may include radiation even if she's older.