Older women underestimate their risk of developing breast cancer, new research shows.

Many women in their 70s mistakenly believe they are not at a high risk of developing the disease because they no longer qualify for free mammograms, the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation (NZBCF) research found.

Only 10 per cent of women questioned in a Colmar Brunton poll for the charity knew their risk of breast cancer was higher in old age than in their 50s, while 40 per cent believed it was lower.

"Women do tell us they thought they were 'past breast cancer' when their free mammograms stopped, but we were surprised just how few are aware that their risk goes up as they age," said NZBCF chief executive Van Henderson.


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"Our message to New Zealand women is, keep an eye on your breasts and, if you're in good health, continue with mammograms in your 70s."

Former Miss Universe Lorraine Downes was shocked when her mother Glad Downes was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, aged 76.

"Like mum, we thought because of her age, she was in a safe zone, and we didn't realise women still got breast cancer in their seventies," said Lorraine Downes.

Glad Downes underwent successful treatment for her cancer, including a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She is full of praise for the health system, but wants women her age to understand that their risk of breast cancer is higher now than it was in their 50s.

Breast cancer screening is free and recommended for women aged between 45 to 69, but shifts to a paid-for service once women hit 70. Historically this was because it was assumed other medical conditions were more likely to cause death, NZBCF said.

26 Mar, 2014 2:00pm
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However, a New Zealand woman aged 70 in 2014 is likely to live until age 89 - 20 years after her last free mammogram.

The women surveyed were well aware of the need for mammograms in their younger years; 72 per cent had previously been screened, but only one-third had been screened in the past two years.

Women cited age (46 per cent) and no family history of breast cancer (18 per cent) as the top two reasons for not going for a mammogram.

Price was also a factor, with 80 per cent of women aged 70-74 saying they would continue with screening if it was free.

Women aged over 70 must pay for their own mammograms, with the cost typically ranging from $145 to $195, NZBCF said.

"That's a lot of money for most people,'' said Mrs Henderson.

"This week, I will be writing to every private mammogram clinic in New Zealand, asking them to offer discounted mammograms to women over 70."

The charity wants to see free screening extended to 74, to bring New Zealand more in line with Australia and the UK.

Early detection gives women the best chance for survival, and for less invasive treatment, NZBCF said.