Women's health * 50+ health

Screening has "little impact" on breast cancer survival

Screening  has little impact  on breast cancer deaths Study looks at outcome of different countries' approaches

Screening for breast cancer is one of the most promoted preventive health measures in the UK, but a new study suggests it may have little impact on breast cancer survival rates.

Breast cancer screening is considered to be beneficial because, as with many cancers, detecting the disease in the early stages increases the chances of survival.

The number of women dying each year from breast cancer has been falling in many developed countries. However, whether this is due to better treatments, earlier detection of the disease through screening or a combination of both is not clear.

An international team of scientists from France, the UK and Norway investigated the trends in breast cancer mortality in three pairs of European countries – Northern Ireland versus Republic of Ireland, the Netherlands versus Belgium and Flanders, and Sweden versus Norway - to look at the impact of different approaches to screening.

Each pair of countries had similar healthcare services and level of risk factors for breast cancer mortality. However, one of the paired countries introduced breast cancer screening around 10 to 15 years later than the other.

The researchers expected to find fewer deaths due to the disease in countries that implemented breast cancer screening earlier.

Instead they found there was little difference in the death rates from breast cancer in the paired countries.

The greatest reductions were seen in women aged between 40 and 49, regardless of any screening programmes available to this age group.

In the British Medical Journal, the authors wrote: "The contrast between the time differences in implementation of mammography screening and the similarity in reductions in mortality between the country pairs suggest that screening did not play a direct part in the reductions in breast cancer mortality".

They conclude that the improvement in survival rates is therefore more likely to be related to "improvements in treatment and in the efficiency of healthcare systems" than to the impact of screening programmes.

This article was published on Fri 29 July 2011

Image © Arto - Fotolia.com

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