Attending breast screening reduces risk of death

June 19th, 2015

A major international review published this week in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine claims that women aged 50 to 69 years who attend breast screening  have a reduced risk of dying from breast cancer compared with women who are not screened.

Experts from 16 countries assessed the positive and negative impact of different breast cancer screening methods from
Untitled-design-(1)around the world, including routine screening programs (where all women of a certain age are invited to attend) and opportunistic screening services (which operate in countries without a set program). The findings were coordinated by International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation’s specialised cancer agency.

The review claims that attendance at breast screening was associated with a 40% reduced risk of breast cancer death.  In addition, women who were invited to attend breast screening had a 23% risk reduction, compared with women not invited by routine screening programs.

Experts, however, are cautioning that the findings of this review should be interpreted in context. While breast screening plays an important role in the early detection of breast cancer, it is important to remember that many other factors have also contributed to the reduced deaths from breast cancer, such as improved treatment options and greater awareness among women.

The debate about the effectiveness of breast cancer screening continues. The evidence tells us that breast screening can identify cancer before symptoms appear, when a better range of treatment options are available leading to a more successful outcome. However, some concerns have been raised over the potential harms of breast screening, including false-positive results and overdiagnosis – that is, where non-life threatening, slow growing breast cancers are detected by screening, leading to women receiving unnecessary treatment, which could be potentially harmful, for breast cancers that would not have become problematic in the person’s lifetime.

What is clear from the ongoing debate, is that more research is needed into the role of routine breast screening and other methods of breast cancer risk reduction.

Researchers hope that this review of evidence helps to reassure women that there are benefits to breast screening.

“This important analysis will hopefully reassure women around the world that breast screening with mammography saves lives,” said Professor Stephen Duffy of Queen Mary University of London in the United Kingdom. “The evidence proves breast screening is a vital tool in increasing early diagnosis of breast cancer and therefore reducing the number of deaths.”

The review also showed the disparity in screening programs available around the world. In the decades since breast cancer screening was identified as an effective method in reducing breast cancer deaths, routine breast screening has been implemented in high-income countries. Women in low and middle-income countries rely on periodic breast cancer awareness campaigns and screening promoted by advocacy groups.

No screening program is perfect, and there are risks as well as benefits. So it is important that women are informed of the benefits and the risks before agreeing to participate in the program.

In Australia, women aged 50 to 74 are invited to attend free routine breast screening every 2 years. Since it was launched more than 20 years ago, BreastScreen Australia has helped improve early diagnosis of breast cancer. More than 1.8 million women are screened every two years.

All women aged between 50 and 74 are encouraged to make a breast screening appointment with the BreastScreen service in their state. For more information, please visit, www.australia.gov.au/breastscreen.