Conventional wisdom is that all women over 50 should be regularly tested for breast cancer, but recent studies have shown that this may not be good advice for everyone. According to a study published in 2018, breast cancer surgery may be causing early death for residents of nursing facilities.
The study looked at nearly 6,000 women who had breast cancer surgery while living in nursing homes. It found that 31-42% of them died within the year. The usual rate of fatalities in a nursing facility is 25%, so that’s a big jump. The study didn’t include the causes of death, but the assumption is that these women’s health was weakened by surgery and that underlying health problems became worse as a result of the surgery. Women who weren’t able to care for themselves before surgery were the most likely to die within the year, as their health was already precarious beforehand.
What’s interesting is that the women didn’t die as a direct result of breast cancer. Breast cancer generally grows slowly in elderly women and can take up to 10 years to cause death. By then, many of these women were unlikely to be alive in any case.
Among women who survived past the year after surgery, there were still adverse effects from the surgery. 58% of the women became much less independent and were unable to perform basic tasks like dressing and bathing which they had been able to do before.
Breast cancer surgery is considered low risk, but this study demonstrates that while that may be true for healthy women, it is not necessarily so for the elderly and frail. The American Cancer Society recommends breast cancer screening for women who are in good health and expected to live for another 10 years. Women in nursing facilities are often not in the best of health and do not have a long life expectancy. It would seem that these women are better off not having mammograms and other screening procedures and avoiding breast cancer surgery.