Detecting Breast Cancer After 65

woman getting a mammogram

Regular mammograms and self-exams save lives.

There’s good news for older women when it comes to breast health: Mammograms are clearer, and it’s easier to perform self-exams. “For most women, the breasts become less dense as they age,” says William M. Schulman, MD, a breast surgeon at Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus (MMCSC). “Dense tissue is replaced by fatty tissue, which is easier to interpret on a mammogram. Also, any abnormal areas stand out more during a self-exam.”

The not-so-good news: The risk of developing breast cancer increases as a woman ages. Most tumors are found in women ages 55 and older, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). The risk of developing invasive breast cancer over a 10-year period is 1 in 43 at age 50; 1 in 29 at age 60; and 1 in 25 at age 70. Men can also develop breast cancer, although it’s rare (it affects less than 1 percent of men), according to the ACS. The likelihood of developing it also increases with age.

The best protection

The best way to protect yourself is to continue having regular mammograms. The screening test reduces the risk of dying from breast cancer by about 20 percent, according to the ACS. Women who are at average risk of developing the disease should be screened annually starting at age 40, advises Dr. Schulman. A woman at high risk may need to be screened earlier—and she may benefit from an ultrasound or an MRI. It’s also important to perform monthly self-exams. Women should watch for any skin or nipple changes (if the nipple is inverted, crusting or scaling, for instance). Also, drainage of bloody or clear fluid from the nipple could be a sign of cancer.

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, early detection means you’ll likely have more treatment options, including breast conserving surgery. “Most women don’t need to have their breast(s) removed,” says Dr. Schulman. “Also, breast cancer is not a death sentence. Women can live long, productive lives after treatment. I see many patients who had breast cancer 25 years ago and are now in their 80s.”

A better breast biopsy

Monmouth Medical Center Southern Campus now offers three-dimensional mammograms, which produce many thinly sliced images of the breast, improving cancer detection. If a woman having this type of screening needs a biopsy, she can have one guided by three-dimensional mammography imaging.

With the new biopsy system, a woman lies face down on the exam table, enabling the physician to quickly identify and remove samples of tissue from breast lesions. Since the woman is in a prone position, the physician has full access to the breast, making the process quicker. In a survey of patients who had a biopsy using this system, more than 95 percent reported that it was faster and less painful than they had expected.