POLL: Women and Breast Cancer: Many Fall Short in Screening

Six in 10 women worry about their risk of contracting breast cancer -- but most skip the basic step of a monthly self-exam; many over 40 don't get annual mammograms and four in 10 haven't discussed the disease with their doctor.

Only four in 10 women in this ABC News poll say they've ever given themselves a self-exam; fewer -- 27 percent -- report having done a self-exam in the past month, as is suggested starting at age 20. Even among women over 40 with a family history of the disease -- two key risk factors -- just 38 percent do monthly self-exams.

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Forty-two percent of women also say they haven't had a conversation with a doctor about breast cancer; even among those over age 40, 38 percent haven't had such a discussion -- nor have three in 10 of those with a family history of the disease. Talking with a doctor can encourage awareness of risks and screening.

Examinations are occurring; 61 percent of all women over 40, and 70 percent of older women with a family history of the disease, say they've had a mammogram in the past year, as recommended by the American Cancer Society. But that leaves substantial numbers who have not had this screening done.

In the most recent data from the federal National Health Interview Survey, from 2005, 66.4 percent of women over 40 reported having a mammogram in the previous two years. Using that two-year time frame, it's a similar 69 percent in this survey.

Fewer report having had a breast exam in a doctor's office without a mammogram -- between three in 10 and four in 10 women have ever had this done, fewer recently.

Breast cancer -- the second-leading cause of cancer death among women -- is the subject of a divisionwide ABC News series "The Fight Against Breast Cancer" that airs beginning at 7 a.m. EDT today.

The poll results overall suggest broad awareness of breast-cancer screening but far from ideal follow-through, even among higher-risk, older women.

Concern and Discussion

Four in 10 women have had a close relative diagnosed with the disease -- a development that does, appropriately, raise concerns. Among women with no such diagnosis in the family, 56 percent are concerned about their own risk of contracting breast cancer; among those with a family history, concern rises to 68 percent.

Those with a family history also are more apt to be "very" concerned about their own risk and less apt not to be concerned at all. High-level concern peaks (at 33 percent) among women with both risk factors together -- being older than 40, with a family history.

Concern does raise the likelihood of having a conversation with a doctor about the disease -- two-thirds of those worried about their risk report having such a discussion, vs. 44 percent of those not concerned. Women with a close relative who had been diagnosed are also much more likely to have had this discussion, 69 percent vs. 50 percent.

Counterintuitively, women under 40 express more concern about their chance of getting breast cancer than do older women -- 69 percent vs. 55 percent. Although the risk of breast cancer increases with age, older women may be less concerned because they're so much more likely ever to have had a mammogram, 74 percent vs. 30 percent.


Overall, 57 percent of women have ever had a mammogram, peaking at eight in 10 older women with a family history of breast cancer. However, as noted above, fewer have had one in the last year; somewhat more, in the last two years.

Having had a mammogram, a breast exam during a checkup and self-exams all are higher among women who've discussed breast cancer with their doctors. Concern also is a factor: Women over 40 who are concerned about their risk are somewhat more apt to have done self-exams, and especially more likely to have had mammograms.

Multiple Steps/Other Steps

All told, 85 percent of women over 40 report having had at least one of the following: a mammogram, self-exam or a breast exam as part of a medical visit -- at least once. Fewer, though -- 42 percent -- have taken at least two of these steps at least once each. And as noted, fewer still follow-up regularly.

To avoid leading respondents, this poll asked about breast cancer screening in an open-ended question: "What steps, if any, have you personally taken to avoid or check for breast cancer?" In addition to the most-cited responses, a total of 16 percent say they've changed lifestyle behaviors, such as regulating diet, exercising and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol -- with older women more likely to make such changes, 20 percent vs. 10 percent of younger women.

One in 10 reports taking no steps to avoid or check for breast cancer.


This ABC News poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 26-30, 2007, among a random national sample of 510 adult women. The results have a 4.5-point error margin. Field work by ICR-International Communications Research of Media, Pa.

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