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Is breast cancer screening really worthwhile?

Portfolio politics

Louise Newson

Monday, 02 March 2009

mammography machine.jpgThere has been a lot of adverse publicity in the newspapers recently about the harms of breast cancer screening. This has followed an article in the BMJ which recommends that the leaflet which is currently sent to each woman undergoing breast screening entitled “Breast Screening: The Facts” is abolished. The NHS Cancer Screening Programme has agreed that it is going to be re-written to include more of the potential harms of screening.

The major harm of screening is the unnecessary treatment of harmless lesions that would not have been identified without screening. This article in the BMJ has quoted the following facts about breast cancer screening:

  • If 2000 women are screened regularly for 10 years, one will benefit from the screening, as she will avoid dying from breast cancer.
  • At the same time, 10 healthy women will, as a consequence, become cancer patients and will be treated unnecessarily.

Combined with the higher levels of anxiety and stress that occur in women who have false positive mammography results, I am yet to be convinced of the true merits of breast cancer screening.
Would other women feel differently about attending for breast cancer screening if they were given all the facts – the benefits and the harms – from this screening programme?

Author's Image

Louise Newson

Louise is a part-time GP in Solihull, as well as a writer for numerous medical publications, including www.patient.info. She is an Editor and Reviewer for e-learning courses for the RCGP. She is an Editor for Geriatric Medicine journal and the British Journal of Family Medicine. Louise has contributed to various healthcare articles in many different newspapers and magazines and is the spokesperson for The Information Standard. She has also done television and radio work. Louise is a medical consultant for Maverick TV and has participated regularly in ‘Embarrassing Bodies Live from the Clinic’. Louise has three young children and is married to a consultant urological surgeon. Although her spare time is limited she enjoys practising ashtanga yoga regularly and loves road cycling – she has raised over £2K for a local charity, Molly Olly Wishes by competing in a 120km cycle ride!
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