Alberta is lowering the age at which women can begin getting screened for breast cancer.
Alberta Health Services has lowered the recommended age for biennial breast cancer screening for average-risk women from 50 to 45.
“Early detection and treatment gives people with cancer the best chance to survive this disease,” Health Minister Jason Copping said in a news release.
AHS said the updated guidelines were created by the Alberta Breast Cancer Screening Clinical Practice Guideline Committee. They are the result of “an extensive review of new available evidence,” according to AHS.
“More evidence has become available to show net benefits of breast cancer screening at a younger age,” committee co-chair Dr. Huiming Yang said. “That is why the breast cancer screening guidelines now recommend including average-risk women aged 45 to 49 into biennial screening.
“We hope this will help to diagnose breast cancer earlier and, in turn, help save lives.”
The most recent statistics show more than 240 Alberta women between the ages of 45 and 49 were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018.
AHS said about 12,000 more screening mammograms could be performed each year for women aged 45 to 49, based on current screening rates.
“Health-care providers are encouraged to recommend biennial screening mammograms for women who are at average risk beginning at age 45,” committee co-chair Dr. Lisa Stevenson said. “By being more proactive in our screening efforts, we can make a real difference in the lives of Albertans.”
Radiologist Dr. Shiela Appavoo said lowering the age is a step in the right direction, but she doesn’t believe it goes far enough. She would like to see screening start at age 40.
“More than a quarter of breast cancer deaths are in patients who are diagnosed in their 40s,” Appavoo said.
“The problem is that 17 per cent of breast cancer occurs in the 40s, which is a large amount of the breast cancer out there when you consider it broken into decades. And also, it counts for about 27 per cent of breast cancer deaths.”
Sianne Martin’s breast cancer journey started in 2018, with back pain that she said never went away and just got worse.
One year later, when she was 43, Martin noticed a lump in her left breast. She was sent for a mammogram and biopsy. By then, the cancer had spread to her bones and beyond.
One of the most upsetting parts for the Sherwood Park mother-of-three is she suspected the diagnosis months before.
“I’d actually brought up to my doctor earlier that you know, could it be cancer?” Martin said. “She said, ‘No, no, it’s not likely to be cancer. You know, you’re young, you don’t have a history.’
“If I’d started having mammograms at 40… my outcome could have been quite a bit different.”
Appavoo said about 75 to 80 per cent of breast cancers are seen in women with no identifiable risk factors.
According to Dense Breasts Canada, younger women are more likely to have dense breasts, which require extra screening because tumours are harder to see on a mammogram.
“The studies are showing that women are getting breast cancer younger and younger now. So it’s happening more in the 30s, and it’s happening even in the 20s,” said Jennie Dale, co-founder and executive director of Dense Breasts Canada. She is also calling for the screening age to be lowered to 40.
Dale said some groups also have an increased risk of younger cases.
“Black, Asian, Hispanic women, their peak incidence of breast cancer is in the mid-40s, compared to white women whose peak incidence in the late 50s, early 60s,” Dale said.
AHS advises women aged 45 to 74 to have a screening mammogram every two years, or as decided in conjunction with a health-care provider.
— With files from Su-Ling Goh, Global News.