Breast cancer screening beneficial, scientists reassure

By Smitha Mundasad
Health reporter

Published
image sourceSPL

An international team of scientists are reassuring women breast screening saves lives.

The study comes after previous debates about the pros and cons of the procedure.

Led by the World Health Organization's cancer agency, 29 independent experts from 16 countries looked at 40 studies.

Their findings, in the New England Journal of Medicine, support current NHS advice, which recommends women aged 50-69 are screened every three years.

But the proportion of women attending screening in England has dipped slightly over the past few years.

media captionBreast cancer patient Pauline Daniels: "The scan found a lump that was so small only the mammogram could have found it"

The report says despite technological advances, improved treatments for breast cancer and worries over potential risks, screening still saves lives.

The NHS estimates it saves 1,300 lives a year from breast cancer in the UK.

But the report also acknowledges there are some pitfalls behind the procedure - such as over-diagnosis, where a slow-growing cancer that would not have caused harm is detected, which can sometimes lead to unnecessary treatment.

And some women end up going through further tests before they get the all clear, as screening can sometimes pick up changes that are not cancerous.

Report author Prof Stephen Duffy, of Queen Mary University of London, said: "This important analysis will hopefully reassure women around the world that breast screening with mammography saves lives.

"The evidence proves breast screening is a vital tool in increasing early diagnosis of breast cancer and therefore reducing the number of deaths."

Meanwhile, charities say women invited for breast screening must be given balanced information to help them decide whether to take up the offer.

Sarah Williams, at Cancer Research UK, said: "There isn't one definitive answer to the question of how the benefits and harms of breast screening stack up - individual women will have different views on the factors that matter most to them, and also there are a number of different ways to bring together and interpret the evidence.

"This latest review from the International Agency for Research in Cancer broadly agrees with the overall conclusions of the 2012 independent review of breast screening in the UK, that breast screening reduces deaths from the disease but that on the other hand some women are over-diagnosed."

The NHS recently took a decision to update patient information leaflets with information about these pros and cons.

The latest study also hints that screening might be helpful beyond the 50-70 age group, but experts say further research is needed to confirm this.

Scientists at the University of Oxford are carrying out pilot studies involving women above and below the official age group.

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