Breast-cancer screening saves lives even though it also picks up cases in some women that would never have caused them a problem, according to a review published in The Lancet medical journal.
The independent review, commissioned by the charity Cancer Research UK (CRUK) and Britain’s Department of Health, follows fierce international debate about the benefits of routine screening and recent research that has argued it does more harm than good.
“This has become an area of high controversy,” said Sir Mike Richards, the Department of Health’s National Cancer Director and one of the sponsors of the review.
Critics of routine screening argue that women can be subjected to unnecessary surgery, radiotherapy and medication to treat cancers that would have posed them no risk.
Harpal Kumar, chief executive of CRUK, acknowledged the shortcomings of screening but argued that until testing for breast cancer becomes more sophisticated, regular monitoring is the best option.
“Screening remains one of the best ways to spot the very early signs of breast cancer, at a stage when treatment is most likely to be successful,” he said.
“Yet, as the review shows, some cancers will be diagnosed and treated that would never have caused any harm.”
A panel of experts led by University College London professor Sir Michael Marmot concluded that screening prevents about 1,300 deaths per year in Britain but can also lead to about 4,000 women having treatment for a condition that would never have troubled them.