Sixty-one percent of the women with cancer did not have a family history of the disease, meaning they did not have mothers, sisters, grandmothers, or cousins who had breast cancer. Of these women, 64% had invasive breast cancer.
Similarly, 63% of women who did have a family history of breast cancer had invasive disease. Also, about 30% of women in both groups had cancer that had spread to the lymph nodes, the study showed.
The Mammograms Debate Rages On
The frequency of screening mammograms — and the appropriate age to begin them — has been debated since the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in 2009 recommended that women routinely get screening mammograms every other year starting at age 50.
The task force says the decision to start regular mammograms before age 50 should be an individual choice based on each woman’s situation. But overall, the benefit of screening all women in their 40s does not outweigh the risks, including that of having to undergo unnecessary biopsies, the task force says.
The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute both continue to recommend annual screening beginning at age 40, however, leading to confusion among doctors and patients, Destounis says.
The new findings are unlikely to put an end to the debate, says Edith Perez, MD, a breast cancer specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla.
What they do suggest is that family history is not useful for deciding which younger women would benefit from annual screening mammograms.
Screening recommendations are aimed at the general population, not the individual patient, says Claudine Isaacs, MD, director of the clinical breast cancer program at Georgetown’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C.
“This is an area of considerable controversy and, as always, it is best for women to check with their own doctors,” she says.