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Dignity Health Says Mammograms Should Start At Age 40

Younger breast cancer survivors unite for photo to stress importance of annual screening

A group of breast cancer survivors poses for a photograph in front of the Mission Hope Cancer Center in Santa Maria, as part of an effort to encourage women to get mammograms beginnin at age 40.
A group of breast cancer survivors poses for a photograph in front of the Mission Hope Cancer Center in Santa Maria, as part of an effort to encourage women to get mammograms beginnin at age 40. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Laurie Owens didn’t have a family history or other risk factors, yet was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45.

She’s not alone. Representatives of Dignity Health Central Coast — which includes Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria — gathered a group of women like Owens for a picture Wednesday to help emphasize the importance of getting annual mammograms starting at age 40.

The Santa Ynez resident joined with dozens of women wearing pink shirts for a picture in front of the Mission Hope Cancer Center in Santa Maria.

“I know so many young women, so many under 40, so many under 50, that have had breast cancer,” she said. “At my workplace alone there were six of us that were under 50.”

At the time, she worked for the city of Santa Barbara. 

“I just feel it’s really important to start screening at 40,” she added. “There’s just too many of us.”

Owens began having screening mammograms at age 40, and was diagnosed with cancer after finding a lump in her breast.

No one in her family had breast cancer and she lacked normal risk factors.

“That’s the point right there — there was absolutely no reason to think that there would be anything wrong with me,” said Owens, who turned 53 a day before participating in the group photo.

‘It was a complete and total shock.”

Owens' discovery of a lump led to chemotherapy, a lumpectomy and radiation. 

Another lump meant the aggressive cancer had moved to her liver. Owens was enrolled in a clinical trial and since has been deemed “no evidence of disease” for five years.

Since she began receiving mammograms at age 40, doctors could use the earlier images to confirm the suspicious changes in her breast tissue. 

“We had those baselines because I’d been doing them,” she added.

New guidelines released in 2015 by the United States Preventative Services Task Force claimed women didn’t need screening mammograms until age 50, 10 years later than the traditional milestone.

The significant change from the standard guidelines raised concerns among some `health professionals.

Dignity Health Central Coast’s cancer committee — physicians and other health professionals — met to discuss which guidelines to follow, according to Katherine Guthrie, cancer services regional director for Dignity Health Central Coast.

Ultimately, the committee decided to follow those used by the American College of Radiology, calling for a screening mammogram at age 40, followed by annual mammograms. 

After reaching the consensus, Dignity Health representatives decided to devise a way to ensure physician and patients know the importance of still conducting screening mammograms at age 40.

“My thing is a picture says a thousand words so that’s what I came up with — can we do a picture of all of our young ladies who are under the age of 50 and why this is important to our community,” she said. 

Helping spread the message is important because some physicians thought the recommendation had changed and that insurance firms wouldn’t pay for screening mammograms under age 50, Guthrie said. 

“That’s not true — insurance is still following the guideline of 40 and annually after that,” Guthrie said. 

Finding and treating cancer early is crucial to survival, leading to the urgency not to change the screening mammogram to age 50.

“You’re going to end up with late-stage cancer if people follow these guidelines,” she said.

Due to scheduling conflicts and other issues, the group of 50 women assembled Wednesday represented only a fraction of the breast cancer survivors treated at Mission Hope Cancer Center during the past three years, Guthrie said.

“That was so inspiring seeing all those young women,” Guthrie said. “I didn’t know that was going to be so touching to me.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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