SAN ANTONIO, Texas — 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 older than 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, not what they say in surveys.
Dr. Milayna Subar of Medco Health Solutions Inc., which manages benefits for many large insurers, conducted the study using records on more than 1.5 million women, and reported results Thursday at a breast cancer conference.
The finding is disturbing, said Dr. Judy Garber of 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," and yet many women are not getting tested.
Rates of screening are likely even lower among women without insurance, though government programs pay for mammograms for many women who lack such coverage.
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.
Experts say women aged 50 to 64 benefit the most from mammograms, and the government estimates that roughly 75 percent of women in this age group had one within the previous two years.
However, the review of insurance claims from 2006 through 2009 put the true number at 65 percent. It also found that only 54 percent of women in this age group had been getting mammograms every year.
Among all women 40 to 85, only half had been getting annual mammograms, the study found.
Bone drug Zometa flops in cancer study
One of the most promising new approaches for fighting breast cancer took a stunning setback Thursday when a major study showed that a bone-building drug did not stop cancer from returning or extend life for most women fighting the disease.
However, the drug Zometa did seem to help certain post-menopausal women. Its maker, Novartis AG, is considering further study but will suspend plans to expand it beyond its current use as a treatment for patients whose cancer has spread to the bone.
The new study tested Zometa in 3,360 women of all ages in seven countries who had breast cancer that had spread to lymph nodes. All received standard cancer treatments, and half also got periodic infusions of Zometa for five years.
After five years of followup, about 400 women in each group had died or suffered a recurrence.
However, among the roughly 1,100 women who were at least five years past menopause when the study began, Zometa cut the risk of recurrence by about 27 percent and improved survival odds by about 29 percent.
Dr. Robert Coleman of the University of Sheffield in England presented the results at the cancer conference in San Antonio.
Bone drugs called bisphosphonates, sold as Fosamax, Boniva and Actonel, have long been sold for treating osteoporosis. Those are daily pills; Zometa, sold as Reclast for osteoporosis, is given as an infusion twice a year.