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The Independent Breast Screening Review has shown that screening saves lives. Here is all the information you need about what the review means.
Led by Professor Sir Michael Marmot, Director of the Institute of Health Equity at University College, London, UK, the review was set up by The National Cancer Director for England, Professor Sir Mike Richards, and Dr Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Research UK, to provide an independent review of the evidence for the benefits and harms of breast cancer screening in the UK.
What is breast screening?
Breast screening is used to detect breast cancer in women who are assumed to be healthy. It takes the form of a mammogram, which is an X-ray of the breasts that can reveal changes or abnormalities before they can usually be seen or felt by hand.
What are the these results and what do they mean for women?
These results are good news for women. This review has shown that breast screening can save lives – around 1,300 lives a year in the UK.
However, there are some downsides to screening - some women who attend screening may be diagnosed and treated for a cancer that may not have caused them harm in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to know which cancers will grow and become harmful and which won’t so all women diagnosed with breast cancer are offered treatment.
It’s vital women have access to clear and balanced information on the pros and cons of breast screening. An expert group is currently looking at the information women receive when invited for their screening appointments and we call for this to be available as soon as possible.
The UK’s leading breast cancer charities encourage all women to attend breast screening.
What would you say to a woman who is considering whether to go for screening?
Breast screening saves lives, and we encourage women to attend. However, it’s important women know about all the benefits and risks of screening so they can make an informed choice about attending. That’s why we’re backing current work that is going on to review the information provided to women invited to screening. This new information will present all the facts in a very clear manner that we hope will help women understand what screening might mean for them.
If screening is the best way of catching this early form of the disease, what has all the controversy been about?
Although routine breast screening is the best way of finding cancer at the earliest possible stage, there are some debates over just how many lives are saved due to early detection. This is because scientists have different ways of interpreting data so it can lead to different estimates being reported. This review has been the most thorough to date – and it shows the best evidence is that screening definitely saves lives – around 1,300 lives a year in the UK.
There are some risks associated with screening and again, due to the different way data is interpreted and analysed, different estimates have led to debate on how the benefits and risks balance against each other.
What is over-diagnosis?
Screening is not perfect and can be associated with something called over-diagnosis. This is when a cancer is detected which may be so slow growing that it will not cause harm to that woman or result in further symptoms during her lifetime. However, it is not currently possible to know which cancers will grow and become harmful and which won’t, so all women diagnosed with breast cancer are offered treatment.
This review has shown that over-diagnosis does occur as a result of the screening programme. So some women will have unnecessary treatment. But it’s vital to remember that some women’s lives will be saved by screening.
It is important women have access to clear and balanced information on the pros and cons of breast screening. The UK’s leading breast cancer charities are supporting the work of an expert group looking at the information women receive when invited for their screening appointments and we call for this to be available as soon as possible.
Is the breast screening programme the same across the UK?
In Scotland, breast screening is carried out by the Scottish Breast Screening Programme and in Wales, by Breast Test Wales. The arrangements are the same as in England and women are entitled to breast screening every three years after the age of 50. Once they reach 70, they are still entitled to a screening appointment but they have to make their own appointments.
What should women do if they are confused about screening?
It’s important women are able to make an informed choice about whether or not they attend their breast screening appointments.
In order to do this we recommend women read the information leaflet given to them at the time they receive their invitation. This should help them consider the benefits and risks of screening and how important these are to their individual views, needs and circumstances. This leaflet is currently being updated so that it will be as helpful as possible and clearly present the facts.
It may also be useful for women to talk things through with a friend or family member who has been screened before. Or a GP will always be happy to discuss further concerns.