NEW YORKAlmost half the women age 65 and over in the United
States think they are not at risk for breast cancer or that they are
at low risk, according to a national survey from the sponsors of
National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM).
The survey also found that if this group of women were told they were
at higher risk, they would still be less likely to get annual
mammograms than younger women receiving similar warnings. These were
among the findings of a poll of 854 women over 40 years of age across
Although the majority said they were either very or somewhat familiar
with the risk factors for developing breast cancer, 90% could not
identify the important risk factors for breast cancer56% named
family history, a proven risk factor, while 19% named diet, which is
not a proven risk factor. Only 8% cited age or growing older, and
only 7% cited previous breast cancer history.
Nevertheless, the survey found that breast cancer is the disease the
majority of women age 40 and over fear the most: 32% said they
worried about getting breast cancer; 24% worried about heart disease;
14% worried about osteoporosis; 9% about uterine cancer, and 5% about
depression. Thirteen percent did not cite any disease, and the
remaining 3% cited a variety of other disorders.
Half of the women polled said they would be more rigorous about
having annual mammograms if their physicians told them they were at
higher risk. Yet the women who were 65 and over would be less likely
to act on this information than would women age 40 to 54 who received
The study also found that African-American women would be more likely
to get regular mammograms than white women if told they were at
higher risk for breast cancer.
What women know and think about breast cancer is particularly
important in light of the numerous scientific advances that have
occurred recently in the fight against the disease, said Bernadine
Healy, MD, dean of the College of Medicine and Public Health of Ohio
State University and former director of the National Institutes of Health.
Speaking at a press conference held to announce the survey results,
Dr. Healy said, Advances must be translated into the minds and
hearts of the individual woman who must constantly be aware of what
she can do to alter her own risk.
Dr. Healy recalled the days when she first started practicing
medicine: Breast cancer was a family secret, and radical mastectomy
was the only treatment.
Much of the credit for todays heightened breast cancer
awareness should go to advocacy groups and women, Dr. Healy said.
Indeed, the disease has become a kind of metaphor for womens
vulnerability and for their feminism.
Diane Blum, executive director of Cancer Care, Inc., and a
co-founding member of the Board of Sponsors of NBCAM, took note of
one of the surveys most disturbing findingsthat almost
half the women 65 and over believed they were either at low or no
risk for developing breast cancer.
Older womens perceptions about risk are particularly
alarming when you consider that 77% of breast cancers occur in women
over the age of 50, Ms. Blum said. The risk of breast
cancer increases as women grow older. You dont outgrow it, so
yearly mammograms are a must, especially for women over 65.
The national study, underwritten by the Board of Sponsors of NBCAM,
was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation International, a
Princeton, NJ-based research group. Phone interviews were conducted
between August and September 1998.