Breast Cancer in Women 65-85 Years and Beyond

Female doctor with senior patient
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As more and more of the Baby Boomer generation swell the ranks of seniors in this country, we can expect to see an increase in the numbers of women newly diagnosed with breast cancers.

Each year, nearly 96,000 women in the US, between the ages of 65 and 85 are diagnosed with breast cancer.They have the 2nd highest annual rate of new breast cancer diagnoses after women 55-64 years of age. (Source: American Cancer Society)

They may be second in diagnostic numbers annually, but they are first in numbers of deaths from breast cancer than any other age group. (Source: Journal of the American Medical Association)

Why are they dying, from breast cancer, in larger numbers than other age groups?

I often speak with seniors in community centers and retirement residences stressing the breast cancer risks that exist for their age group.  Most are shocked to hear that they are still at risk for breast cancer, sharing that getting breast cancer was one possibility they no longer thought they had to worry about because of their age.

Recently, I got my chance, once again, to hear some of the reasons that may be contributing to the numbers of seniors, in general, that are dying from breast cancer. I had the opportunity to speak with 50 seniors living in a retirement community.Residents ranged in age from 67 to 100 years of age.

In the discussion that took place after my presentation, a number of the women and a few men identified the myths about breast cancer that many seniors and the elderly believe:

  • The risk of getting breast cancer was significantly lower with age.
  • Breast cancer, as they aged, would be slower moving, less aggressive, and as a result, their chances of dying from the disease would be also less likely.

    This thinking leads to poor decision making about breast health and can result in a late-stage diagnosis of breast cancer when treatment is more extensive and difficult to tolerate, and the outcome is less favorable.

    Almost all the women participating in the discussion shared that they no longer get annual mammograms, mostly for the reasons stated above, while others stated other medical conditions take up so much of their time that they forgo preventive health care activities such as mammograms. The three men in attendance stated they didn’t know men got breast cancer. When I asked, none ever recalled being given a breast exam during an annual physical.

    Many of the participants shared their concerns about the cost of treatment, if diagnosed. Others couldn’t imagine coping with treatment.

    Most knew little about current best practices for treatment of breast cancer.

    Some were concerned that, given their age, they may not be offered the same treatments given to younger women, and that would impact on their survival.

    Seniors I’ve spoken to want to know about:

    •  Breast cancer risks.
    •  Getting screenings.
    •  Medicare and Medicaid coverage.
    • The current standard of care, if diagnosed with breast cancer.
    •  Accessing treatment.
    • Getting the physical and emotional supports to get through treatment, if living alone.

    Getting regular breast cancer screenings is the best way to catch a cancer while it is still small, easy to treat, and at an early stage of the disease.

    Speak with your mom, aunt or other relative about the need for her to have breast screenings. Offer to take her for a comprehensive breast exam and mammogram. Don’t let a lack of transportation or fear keep a loved one from getting the preventative care that could save her life.

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