April 25, 2014 4:44 pm

More than half of Atlantic Canadian women confused about mammograms: survey

HALIFAX – Doctors and breast cancer organizations are alarmed by a new survey showing the majority of women in Atlantic Canada are confused about mammograms.

A survey just released by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation shows six out of 10 women in Atlantic Canada are confused by conflicting information about mammography.

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The survey also shows four out of 10 women say the confusion makes them second guess whether they should be screened.

“There’s just a lot of confusion,” said Jane Parsons, CEO of the Atlantic region of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

“I think with breast cancer, it’s a disease that is so personal. Women, they don’t know who to talk to about it,” she said.

This is the first time the organization has conducted the survey.

“Is it surprising? No. Alarming? Yes. We know we have more work to do to make sure women know they have this access to [screening],” Parsons said.

Screening is what saved the life of Ilse Shea, 59. Eleven years ago, the Halifax woman was pondering whether to get her first mammogram.

Shea said her doctor told her she did not need to because she was healthy; but a friend who was a nurse said she should.

Doctors found something suspicious in that first mammogram, leading them to do a biopsy, which concluded Shea had breast cancer.

She quickly had a mastectomy but said there is no way she would have if she had not been screened.

“My lump was so deep into my breast that, at that point, a doctor could not feel it. It could only be seen on a mammogram,” Shea said.

Now the breast cancer survivor is a vocal advocate of regular screening.

“I truly believe that’s what saved my life. That’s why I’m here today, 11 years later. I know I wouldn’t be here 11 years if I had waited until it could be felt or until I was 50,” she said.

Radiologist Dr. Judy Caines, medical director of the Nova Scotia Breast Screening Program, said women 40 to 49 years old should be screened once a year, women 50 to 69 years old should be screened once every two years and, after that, women should consult with their doctor.

Caines said, while she is not surprised women are confused about mammograms, she hopes women realize new technology and better treatment programs are helping to decrease mortality rates.

“There’s no question when you find a breast cancer when it is very small, when the nodes are negative, the woman has a good chance of surviving her disease. If it’s advanced then that chance is considerably reduced,” she said.

Caines said she understands some women are concerned about false positive but she notes it is better to be safe than sorry.

“The benefits of screening are in the regular screening exam. You don’t just come periodically. You look every year or two years because we’re looking for subtle changes. The possibility of detecting cancer early is the possibility of saving their own lives.”

Breast Cancer Action Nova Scotia is a support group for breast cancer survivors.

It said there should be no excuse when it comes to possibly saving your life.

“To go for a mammogram only takes a very short time out of your year, maybe half an hour, just to have that piece of mind,” said executive director Barbara Thompson.

According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, approximately 1,730 women in Atlantic Canada were diagnosed with the disease in 2013 and about 20 per cent died.

It said breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women in Canada, with one in nine women expected to develop it during their lifetime.

**A previous version of the article incorrectly stated women 50 to 59 should be screened once every two years. It has since been updated to reflect that women 50 to 69 should be screened once every two years. 

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