WEDNESDAY, Dec. 1, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Yearly mammograms for women between the ages of 40 and 50 dramatically reduce the chance that a mastectomy will be necessary if they develop breast cancer, a new study suggests.
British researchers studied the records of 156 women in that age range who had been diagnosed with breast cancer between 2003 and 2009, and treated at the London Breast Institute. Of these women, 114 had never had a mammogram and 42 had had at least one mammogram within the last two years, including 16 who had had a mammogram within one year.
About 19 percent of the women who'd been screened within one year had a mastectomy, the study found, compared with 46 percent of those who had not had a mammogram the previous year.
Because annual mammograms allowed tumors to be discovered earlier, breast-sparing surgery was possible for most of the women, said Dr. Nicholas M. Perry, the study's lead author.
Perry, director of the institute, at the Princess Grace Hospital in London, was to present the study findings Wednesday in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
"You're talking about lowering the number of mastectomies by 30 percent," Perry said. "That's 2,000 mastectomies in the U.K. every year, and in the U.S., that's over 10,000 mastectomies saved in a year. The numbers are big and impressive, and breast cancer in young women is a very big issue."
Among all women diagnosed with breast cancer at the London institute during the study period, 40 percent were younger than 50, Perry said.
According to the American Cancer Society, about 207,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women in the United States this year. The society recommends annual mammograms for women 40 and older, but a report in November 2009 from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggested that screenings begin at age 50 and be given every other year.
In England, the U.K. National Health Service currently offers mammograms to women between the ages of 50 and 70 every three years.
"It's always a very hot issue," Perry said. "People are vehemently opposed and vehemently in support [of earlier screenings]. But just at the moment, the data is coming in that would support it."
Dr. Sandhya Pruthi, an expert in breast cancer prevention, screening and risk management at the Mayo Clinic, said she had never come across a study like Perry's that examines the surgical outcomes after mammograms given at various ages.
"I think this is the kind of research we need to support," Pruthi said. "These kinds of research questions need to be posed that show the many facets of where mammography screening is helping us."
Both Perry and Pruthi noted that women seek mammograms not only to potentially save their life but also to avoid a mastectomy or other radical cancer treatments by finding cancer at an earlier stage. Smaller tumors can often be treated with a lumpectomy, which removes the cancer but spares the rest of the breast.
"We tend to underestimate that young women do get breast cancer," Pruthi said. "As a result of [earlier mammograms], these women received more surgical options. . . and were able to save the breast. I think that's an important point to get out there."
Also, detecting breast cancer early often signals a better prognosis and long-term survival rate, Perry said.
"Young women, you could argue very strongly, have the most to gain from earlier screenings, in terms of life-years gained," he added.
Experts note that research presented at medical meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
WomensHealth.gov has more on mammograms.