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Paper Chase

Breast cancer survival among women under age 50: is mammography detrimental?

Lancet. Oct 24, 1992;340(8826):991-4.
Stacey-Clear A, McCarthy KA, Hall DA, Pile-Spellman E, White G, Hulka C, Whitman GJ, Mahoney E, Kopans DB.

Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston 02114.


Great uncertainty exists about the benefit of detecting breast cancer by mammography in women under 50 years of age. We have reviewed the survival of patients aged 49 years or less whose cancers were detected by mammography alone. 117 women under the age of 50 years were diagnosed with breast cancer between 1978 and 1991 based only on an abnormal mammogram. Ductal carcinoma in-situ (DCIS) was found in 47 (40%) of these women, whilst 70 (60%) had infiltrating ductal or infiltrating lobular carcinomas. During the same interval, 928 women in this age group presented with palpable breast cancer. DCIS was diagnosed in 82 (9%) of these women, whilst 846 (91%) had infiltrating carcinoma. Among the infiltrating cancers detected by mammography alone, 50% were stage I, whilst only 30% of the women with palpable cancers were stage I. Five-year survival for all mammographically detected cancer patients was 95%, whereas for women with palpable cancers the survival was 74% (p < 0.00005). If DCIS is not included, the corresponding survivals are 91% for mammographically detected infiltrating cancers and 72% for palpable infiltrating cancers. Only 1 woman who died among those with palpable cancer had had a mammogram before diagnosis. Our data contradict the suggestion that women under 50 are put at a survival disadvantage by undergoing mammography. We believe that investigators who have reported negative results in this age group must examine other causes for their results.