Mammograms save lives but almost half the women at-risk of breast cancer are skipping free testing, according to BreastScreen Australia’s latest monitoring report released this week.
The new figures show 54.4 per cent of women in the target age group of 50–74 were screened in 2015–2016, a small increase from 53.2 per cent in 2014–2015.
But the Cancer Council’s CEO Professor Sanchia Aranda said the more women that are tested, the more lives are saved.
“The earlier cancer is detected, the more likely it is to be successfully treated, so it is a concern that so many women are skipping breast screening,” Aranda told Healthcare IT News Australia at the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“It shows that we can’t be complacent and need to continue to raise breast cancer awareness — including both the importance of screening and the signs and symptoms of breast cancer women should look for.”
It is estimated that breast cancer mortality has been reduced by 21–28 per cent since BreastScreen Australia began, with 31 deaths per 100,000 women of all ages in 1991 to 20 per 100,000 in 2014.
Mortality benefits from breast cancer screening are due to the detection of breast cancers when they are small. Their treatment is also more likely to involve breast-conserving surgery.
While it should defy reason that women are not accessing the technology, Aranda said they have their reasons.
“Some women don’t see themselves as being at risk of breast cancer – this might be because of the strong emphasis that has been placed on family history as a risk factor. But the reality is that the two biggest risk factors for breast cancer are being female and aging – no-one is truly not at risk.”
The family connection with breast cancer received significant coverage in 2013 when Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie announced she had chosen to undergo a double mastectomy after discovering she had inherited a “faulty” BRCA1 gene.
Health concerns are also among the reasons women have for avoiding mammograms.
“We also know that some women have concerns about screening – for example, they may be worried about exposure to radiation, or over-diagnosis – which can lead to a reluctance to participate. We need to continue to stress the benefits of early detection to encourage these women to take part,” Aranda said.
The greatest increase in screening between 2014–2015 and 2015–2016 was recorded in women aged 70–74 (over 13 per cent), which is due in part to increased marketing efforts of BreastScreen that actively targeted the age category.
Incidence of breast cancer has remained steady for over a decade at around 300 new cases per 100,000 women aged 50–74.
In 2014, 1,404 women aged 50–74 died from breast cancer — equivalent to 45 deaths per 100,000 women.
BreastScreen Australia provides free twice-yearly mammograms for women aged 50–74. Women aged 40–49 and 75 and over are also eligible, but not actively targeted.
A small amount of screening mammography occurs outside BreastScreen Australia through Medicare for women at higher risk or in private clinics.