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Study: Half of women over 40 have mammograms

SAN ANTONIO - Remember the uproar last year when a government task force said most women don't need annual mammograms?

It turns out that only half of women over 40 had been getting them that often to start with, even when they have insurance that covers screening. The information comes from a review of insurance claims that show what women actually do - and not what they say in surveys.

"We all support many things - fast food isn't what we should eat for dinner every night - but that isn't what we do," said Dr. Milayna Subar of Medco Health Solutions Inc. which manages benefits for many large insurers. She did the study using records on more than 1.5 million women, and reported the results yesterday at a breast cancer conference.

The finding is disturbing, said Dr. Judy Garber of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and president-elect of the American Association for Cancer Research, one of the conference's sponsors. "Here's an insured population where cost is not a barrier," she said, and yet many women are not getting tested.

Rates of screening are likely to be even lower among women without insurance, though government programs pay for mammograms for many women who lack such coverage.

Mammograms are X-rays of the breast that can reveal tumors when they're too small to be felt. But they also raise many false alarms, leading to worry, expense and overtreatment. How often and when women should get mammograms has long been controversial.

In November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said women in their 40s at average risk for cancer do not need mammograms, and that women 50 and older need them only every two years. Many groups, including the American Cancer Society, still advise annual mammograms starting at 40.

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However, the review of claims from 2006 to 2009 put the number at 65 percent, and found that only 54 percent of women in that age group had been getting yearly mammograms. - AP

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