Breast screening saves lives despite some overdiagnosis

Tuesday 30 October, 2012

A large independent British review of the risks and benefits of breast cancer screening published in The Lancet today has found that breast cancer screening does save lives.

According to Kate Broun, Cancer Council Victoria's Screening Programs Manager, the review shows that the benefits of regular mammographic screening clearly outweigh the risks of overdiagnosis.

"The review found that women who are invited to screen are 20% less likely to die from breast cancer than those who aren't invited. Screening remains one of the best ways to catch breast cancer at an early stage when treatment is most likely to be successful.

"In Victoria, the majority of women diagnosed with breast cancer are aged between 50 and 69 and we encourage women to have a mammogram every two years between those ages," Ms Broun said.

The review also showed there is a small risk of overdiagnosis in breast screening programs. Of the 307,000 women aged 50-52 years who are invited to begin screening each year, just over 1% will have an overdiagnosed cancer in the next 20 years. Overdiagnosis occurs when cancers that would never have caused any harm are diagnosed and treated. 

"Currently we are not at a stage where we can tell which cancers are harmful and which are not, nor can we predict what will happen in an individual's woman's case.  Hopefully future research will help us to refine the screening process and reduce the number of women having unnecessary treatment. 

"In the meantime it is important that women understand the pros and cons of breast screening

"Most importantly, women should be reassured that on balance this review has found that screening is saving lives," said Ms Broun.

Cancer Council Victoria's statistics show breast cancer is the leading cancer diagnosed and the leading cause of death in Victorian women.

In 2010, 3,499 women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 763 women died from the disease.

Ms Broun said free mammograms are available through BreastScreen Victoria for women aged 50-69. Women aged 40 to 49 or 70 and older also have free access to the BreastScreen Victoria program should they choose to have mammographic screening.

Support for those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer is available – call the Cancer Helpline on 13 11 20.

Mammograms are available by phoning BreastScreen Victoria 13 20 50.