"Women don't seem to take the risk of breast cancer as they get older seriously. A lot of women seem to think of it as a middle-aged disease, and as they get older, they anticipate that if they were going to get breast cancer, they would have already had it. Therefore, they aren't as careful about getting screened," says Kathleen Diehl, M.D.,
assistant professor of surgery at the University of Michigan Medical School
The risk of breast cancer increases with age, and does not drop off until after age 84. More than half of breast cancers are diagnosed in women age 65 or older, and as many as 45 percent are diagnosed after age 70.
Older women who do not follow regular screening guidelines often are diagnosed at a later stage, when breast cancer is more difficult to treat.
Even women who have previously been treated for breast cancer frequently let their surveillance and screening fall by the wayside as they get older. But recent studies have shown that breast cancer survivors who continue to have annual mammograms after age 65 cut their risk of dying from the disease.
Breast cancer specialists, including Diehl, are currently working on guidelines for screening older women. In the meantime, Diehl recommends all women continue to get screened for breast cancer past the age of 70 and at least up till age 85. Screening should include the following:
- Yearly mammograms
- Yearly clinical breast exams with a health care provider
- Monthly breast self-exams
Even women older than 85 should continue to be screened for breast cancer, Diehl says, especially if they are in good health.
"The message I want every woman over age 65 to really understand is that they need to continue to take care of their health. They need to continue to be diligent about seeing their physician for health maintenance exams, including a breast exam, and about getting that mammogram done every year," Diehl says.
"If they develop breast cancer, we want to catch it early, when we have the best chance of treating it and continuing to keep them feeling well and living a long time," she adds.
More than 180,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year and 40,480 will die from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.