Women's health * Healthy living

Breast cancer screening saves lives

Breast cancer screening saves lives Benefits outweigh the risks, study claims

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, affecting one in eight women at some point in their lives.

Debate has raged in the medical community about how effective breast cancer screening is, and whether mammograms result in unnecessary surgery.

But the results from one of the longest-running breast screening programmes — a 20-year programme in The Netherlands — found that mammography screening reduces deaths from the disease by 16 per cent.

Jacques Fracheboud, a senior researcher at Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, said: "Compared with the pre-screening period 1986 to 1988, deaths from breast cancer among women aged 55-79 fell by 31 per cent in 2009.

"There was a significant change in the annual increase in breast cancer deaths: before the screening programme began, deaths were increasing by 0.3 per cent a year, but afterwards there was an annual fall of 1.7 per cent.

"This change also coincided with a significant decrease in the rates of breast cancers that were at an advanced stage when first detected."

In the Netherlands, women aged between 50 and 75 are invited for breast cancer screening every two years, compared with every three years in the UK.

Between 1990 and 2009, more than 3.5 million women aged between 50 and 75 were offered breast cancer screening in The Netherlands, and around 80 per cent accepted.

For a woman who was 50 in 1990 and who had ten screenings over the 20-year period, the researchers calculated that there was a six per cent chance a false positive result, where the scan detects something other than breast cancer.

Over-diagnosis, where tumours are detected which would not have required treatment, was limited to 2.8 per cent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the total female population and 8.9 per cent of those detected during screening.

"These results provide convincing evidence that the programme contributed to the breast cancer mortality decrease that has been observed in the past 20 years in The Netherlands. Our study also shows that the programme is of a high quality and is continually improving. It has a high acceptance rate among women aged 50-75 and the costs of the programme are reasonable," said Dr Fracheboud.

He said he was convinced the benefits outweigh all the negative effects.

The study findings were presented at the European Breast Cancer Conference in Vienna, Austria.

This article was published on Thu 22 March 2012

Image © Arto - Fotolia.com

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