The first guidelines ever released for screening mammography for older survivors of breast cancer (>75 years) recommend that routine mammography be discontinued for women whose life expectancy is less than 5 years but that screening continue for those whose life expectancy is more than 10 years.
For women who have a life expectancy of 5 to 10 years, the guidelines recommend that consideration be given to discontinuing mammography.
Overall, the guidelines encourage shared decision making that is individualized for each woman after weighing the benefits and harms associated with surveillance mammography and patient preferences.
The panel also recommended that patients with clinical findings and symptoms receive ongoing clinical breast examinations and diagnostic mammography and that patients be reassured that these practices will continue.
Guidelines on breast cancer screening for healthy women already “acknowledge the limitations of mammograms and the need to consider one’s health status and preferences when making decisions on how and when to stop routine mammograms,” said the article’s first author, Rachel A. Freedman, MD, MPH, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts.
However, “we don’t have this kind of consensus for women with a history of breast cancer,” she continued. “Current follow-up care guidelines simply state that women with a history of breast cancer with intact breasts should have annual mammography without any guidance.
“In practice, the use of mammograms is highly variable, with less than 50% of breast cancer survivors who have limited life expectancy having annual mammograms, according to survey data we have from prior work,” Freedman told Medscape Medical News.
The guidelines were published online January 28 in JAMA Oncology.
Clinicians Discuss How to Have These Discussions
As part of the process of developing these expert consensus guidelines, the researchers held several clinical focus groups that involved primary care physicians from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and oncology clinicians (including breast surgeons and medical oncologists) from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
All clinicians felt that having expert guidelines and talking points to guide discussions would be helpful, the researchers report.
“However, some oncology clinicians felt that 75 years is often ‘too young’ to stop surveillance mammography and that 80 years may be a more comfortable age to stop routine testing,” they write. “Most clinicians felt that estimations of life expectancy, more than age, should inform the timing of this discussion.”
In contrast to primary and geriatric care clinicians, oncology clinicians reported discomfort with such discussions. They appreciated having the information but “felt it was easier to communicate findings indirectly, without specifically revealing life expectancy to patients. One oncology clinician, however, felt it would be ‘sneaky’ to calculate life expectancy without communicating this to patients, supporting more open discussions,” the authors report.
“All clinicians acknowledged that framing the conversation around patients’ low risk for in-breast cancer events and how mammography will not benefit them was more appealing than discussing life expectancy,” the researchers continue. Their literature review found that the risk of these individuals developing second breast cancers was similar to that of a healthy woman developing a first breast cancer, leading one clinician to comment: “If their risk is really equivalent to the general population — that is very powerful.
“Some clinicians reported that they ‘focus on the risks’ or frame such discussions by asking: ‘If you were to find something on mammogram, would you do anything about it?’ If a patient answered no, clinicians felt this was a signal to stop mammography,” they noted.
Literature Review Finds Very Low Risk
Freedman and colleagues conducted a literature review of the risk for ipsilateral and contralateral breast cancer events among survivors and of the harms and benefits associated with mammography. Following the literature review, a multidisciplinary expert panel, which included patients and patient advocates, was convened to develop consensus guidelines.
The literature review confirmed that there was a low risk for in-breast cancer events in this population and that the risk was particularly low among patients who undergo treatment with endocrine therapy. Among those who did not receive systemic therapy for ERBB2-positive or triple-negative cancers, the rates of ipsilateral recurrence were estimated to be higher.
On the basis of the literature review, the estimated 10-year risk for in-breast cancer events ranged from 1% to 15% for ipsilateral breast cancers and from 1% to 5% for contralateral cancers. Among women in the same age group who did not have a history of breast cancer, the 5-year risk of developing the disease (average risk) was 2.2%.
The authors note that these findings mirror their estimates for new breast cancers among survivors who had low-risk disease. The findings are also similar to those cited in a large-scale mammography study, in which breast cancer survivors aged 70 to 80 years had a 1.1% annual risk for in-breast cancers. The risk was 0.7% to 0.9% for similarly aged patients who did not have a history of breast cancer.
The benefits associated with mammography for older women are not well defined, but the literature suggests that mammography offers little to modest clinical benefit for patients in this age group. The limited benefits are likely due to the more than 10-year time lag that is needed to detect the small improvements in breast cancer mortality; slow-growing tumors generally do not affect the life expectancy of older women, they point out.
“Through our expert consensus process and after iterative feedback from clinicians, we created guidelines to support patients and clinicians in making individualized decisions on how and when to stop mammography,” said Freedman. “These guidelines are based on the risk of a breast cancer returning in the breast, one’s underlying health, and one’s preferences.”
The guidelines are also intended to provide information to patients on the benefits and harms of mammography in this setting, in addition to “how much we anticipate a mammogram may or may not continue to help a woman over time,” she said.
A companion guide for patients on these guidelines will be published in the coming months.
Freedman has received institutional clinical trial funding from Puma Biotechnology and Eisai outside the submitted work.
JAMA Oncol. Published online January 28, 2021. Abstract