Breast cancer survival begins with annual mammograms, local breast surgeons agree.

“The sooner we can get to a breast cancer, the better the outcome,” Dr. Dan Clark said at Indiana Regional Medical Center.

“We recommend mammograms after age 40 every year for the rest of your life, as long as health is good.”

Breast surgeons Dr. Patti Ann Stefanick and Dr. Renée Arlow with Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center and Dr. Deborah Sims and Dr. Trudi Brown at Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center of Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber also urge women to begin annual mammograms at age 40.

For those with a strong family history of breast cancer, screenings should begin when a woman is 10 years younger than the youngest relative was when they were diagnosed, Stefanick said.

Some medical groups have created confusion with new recommendations to start screenings at age 50 and then only every other year for women with normal risk of breast cancer. Some say the screenings have no value for women over 70, because they are more at risk of dying from heart disease or other causes.

“I don’t even listen to that,” Stefanick said at her 939 Menoher Blvd. office in Southmont.

“We all know people who were diagnosed at a later age.”

One reason for not screening older women is cancer surgery and radiation can aggravate other medical conditions. But Stefanick and Clark say the treatments aren’t always traumatic.

“You can do plenty of things about it,” Stefanick said. “You can take out the lump. You don’t have to put her through major surgery. You are helping her life and improving her survival.” 

‘The cancer experts’

Clark says it is counterintuitive to pass up the chance to detect cancer in older women who are healthy.

“Breast cancer is easy to treat in the early stages,” Clark said. “There is not a major impact on the body. A lumpectomy is basically a bigger biopsy.”

Clark said he follows the National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines that recommend annual mammograms beginning at age 40. The NCCN updated its guidelines after a thorough review of current data and studies, he said.

“They are the cancer experts,” he said.

The NCCN does not set an upper age limit for screenings, but suggests physicians should “consider severe co-morbid conditions limiting life expectancy and whether therapeutic interventions are planned.”

When it comes to screening women over age 70, Dr. Lauren Deur, a diagnostic radiologist at UPMC Altoona, puts it this way:

“Are they willing to do something about the results?” she said at Station Medical Center, 1516 Ninth Ave., Altoona.

“When it comes to breast cancer risk factors, No. 1 is being a woman; No. 2 is getting older. We have a very robust aging population in this area.” 

‘A ton of women’

All the region’s hospital organizations promote annual screenings with special events during October to mark National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The surgeons say many women are getting the message.

“I think we are getting better and better, but we are still seeing women who haven’t had a mammogram in 10 years,” Arlow said at Conemaugh East Hills outpatient center, 1450 Scalp Ave.

“We are also seeing a ton of women who are getting their mammograms and they are getting into treatment because of it.”

At Windber, the breast-cancer focus brings women back year after year, Brown said at the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center.

“I rarely see a patient who skipped their mammogram,” she said.

“It is much different here than other places. Most all of the patients I see are having regular mammograms.”

But Windber is still reaching out for the 35% in the community who don’t get their mammograms, Sims said. The center’s staff members encourage women to make their mammogram visit a social opportunity.

“We tell them bring your mom, bring your friends, and go out to eat,” Sims said.

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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