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Mammograms vital for seniors

News editor

Some women who have been having annual mammograms since they turned 40 and have tested negative year after year may begin to question if the procedure is necessary as they get into their 60s and 70s.

“A lot of older patients tell me ‘I don’t know why I keep doing this,’” St. Luke Hospital mammography technician Keri Helmer said. “Just because you’re older doesn’t mean a yearly mammogram isn’t for you.”

Various medical organizations differ on recommended start times and frequencies for mammograms. New guidelines from the American Cancer Society released Tuesday recommend women 55 and older should be screened every other year. Other organizations recommend annual screenings.

Exams are recommended no matter how old a senior is, Helmer said, and Medicare will pay for them.

“For older adults, there’s no end date,” she said. “Your chance for cancer is there throughout your lifetime, so as people age your chance increases. That’s not just for breast cancer, that’s for any type of cancer.”

Early detection makes available less-invasive treatment options, Helmer said, and patients could avoid having to undergo radiation or chemotherapy.

Standard screening procedures can be adapted to accommodate special needs seniors might have.

“We take a little more time with an older patient to be sure there’s no chance of falling or that anything else would happen,” Helmer said. “We’re able to do wheelchair patients, but there are some limitations. There are some additional views I can do to make sure I get everything covered.”

St. Luke upgraded to a digital mammography unit last year, and improved image quality has reduced the need for follow-up visits, Helmer said.

“With this newer system a lot less people have to come back,” she said. “It does a better job the first time, without people having to have additional pictures taken later.”

A radiologist comes to St. Luke once a week to read the images Helmer takes. If retakes are needed, they try to schedule those on days the radiologist will be in so that patients don’t have to wait for results, she said.

Helmer uses ultrasound scans as necessary to enhance the information provided by mammograms.

“If there is a specific area they want to look at, ultrasound can be targeted at that area,” Helmer said. “If there are cysts, ultrasound can reveal how smooth the borders are and what it’s made of. It helps them determine if it is something that can just be followed, or if it’s something that needs more work, like a biopsy.”

Helmer recommended patients talk with their doctors about breast self-examination procedures, mammograms, and and other issues related to breast health.

“Just talking with your physician is a good way to deal with it, talk about how they feel and go from there,” she said.”

Helmer’s recommendation became more important Tuesday when the American Cancer Society issued revised guidelines

Last modified Oct. 22, 2015

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