Breast screening saves lives but raises overtreatment

Screening for breast cancer saves over 1,000 lives a year but will cause unnecessary harm to thousands more, an independent review has found.

Mammography exammination (Photo: SPL)
Mammography exammination (Photo: SPL)

An independent panel of experts who reviewed the evidence said women screened for breast cancer were 20% less likely to die of the disease.

The review found 1,300 lives are saved each year through the NHS Breast Screening programme, but a further 4,000 women will have tumours diagnosed which would not have caused illness. Overdiagnosis can lead to unnecessary harm from treatments including chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Professor Michael Marmot of University College London, who led the panel, said women needed help when weighing up the benefits and potential harms of screening. 'Clear communication of these harms and benefits to women is essential, and the core of how a modern health system should function,' he said.

Professor Sir Mike Richards, national cancer director, said: 'I welcome the fact that the review clearly recommends that breast screening should continue.

'But the key thing is that we communicate this new information to women so they can make an informed choice for themselves. NHS Cancer Screening Programmes have already asked independent academics to develop new materials to give the facts in a clear, unbiased way. I hope to see them in use in the next few months.'

He added: 'If any woman has concerns about breast screening she should talk to her GP or health professional.'

The NHS Breast Screening programme invites all women aged over 50 every three years.

A review of the benefits and harms from screening was commissioned by the DH and Cancer Research UK in October 2011.

It followed an open letter from Professor Susan Bewley, a consultant obstetrician at King’s College London, who said NHS leaflets had ‘exaggerated benefits and did not spell out the risk’ of screening.

She said: ‘The oft repeated statement that "1,400 lives a year are saved" has not been subjected to proper scrutiny.’

In response, Professor Mike Richards, England’s national cancer director, said a review would  resolve ‘ongoing controversy’ over the programme.

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