Breast Cancer Detection in Elderly Women

When a close friend of my family was diagnosed with breast cancer several years back, two things went through my head: Did they catch it early enough? And, will she respond to treatment? Luckily for her and everyone who loves her, the cancer was in its early stages, and therefore, she was highly responsive to treatment. The odds of detecting a potentially terminal illness decrease dramatically without proper screening. And this often the case for the elderly population— including seniors in long-term care facilities.

In a study conducted between 1996 and 2004, whose findings were published on the Breast Cancer Research and Treatment website, researchers examined the connection between certain physician and patient characteristics and recommendations for breast cancer screening. Most women undergo screening, including mammography and clinical breast examinations, only when recommended by a doctor. Seniors on Medicaid and Medicare, especially those over 75, appear to be a low priority for screening. Women with public health insurance were found to be 30 percent less likely to receive a clinical breast exam and 55 percent less likely to be referred for a mammogram. According to a study co-author, this could be attributed to either lowered physician payouts from federal forms of health care insurance, lack of knowledge regarding Medicare/Medicaid coverage of these exams, or both.

It’s integral these exams are referred without prejudice, especially considering the many complications concerning breast cancer treatment for elderly women. In many cases, existing medical conditions can interfere with treatment. According to a 2001 issue of Harvard Women’s Health Watch, some chemotherapy drugs may be intolerable to patients with heart disease, while diabetic people are more likely to experience complications with surgery. A woman’s best defense is to conduct routine self-examinations, to educate herself on the statistics, to keep abreast of the latest research and to take responsibility for her own health. The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation website has a comprehensive guide for conducting breast self-exams and also provides some information on recommended steps for early detection. While a self-exam is no substitute for clinical exams, it’s certainly a positive step toward protecting your own health.

To access a list of breast cancer organizations and resources, visit the Cancer Index website.

Be well, be aware, be happy—

Lori Deschene