In many countries, including the United States, annual mammograms are recommended indefinitely for breast cancer survivors, but a large British study finds that less frequent screening is just as good.
The goal of annual screening exams is to check to see if the cancer has returned. All of these tests cause anxiety for patients and cost money.
Until now, there was no solid evidence for when women could cut back on annual mammograms, said Janet Dunn of the University of Warwick, who led the study funded by the research arm of the U.K.’s National Health Service.
The study showed that less frequent mammograms are as good as an annual schedule for breast cancer survivors age 50 and older.
“It’s really about giving the ladies the go-ahead a little early, if possible,” Dunn said. The findings were discussed at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium. The study, not yet published, has not undergone a full review.
The researchers followed more than 5,200 women. Participants were 50 years old or older and had undergone successful breast cancer surgery, mostly lumpectomies. After three years of annual screenings, half were randomly assigned to have mammograms every year and the other half to have mammograms less frequently.
Both groups did well, with remarkably similar results. Six years later, 95% were still cancer-free. Breast cancer survival was 98% in both groups.
“This is an eye-opening study,” said breast cancer specialist Laura Esserman of the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the new study but is leading research on a personalized screening approach. “I think people will be very surprised.”
The new study is “very strong,” but more research will be needed to change U.S. guidelines, said Corinne Leach of the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida. She led the development of a 2015 US guideline requiring indefinite annual exams for these types of patients.
“A study alone typically doesn’t change guidelines,” Leach said. “This study inspires other researchers to do more work in this area. And that is what could lead to change.”