Should you be getting regular breast cancer screenings? Not necessarily. In recent years, fewer and fewer women are dying from breast cancer. While it may be easy to assume that the reduction in mortality is due to an increase in screening, it’s not the case. According to new research, the reason behind the decrease is actually because of better treatment.
The study, recently published in the scientific journal International Journal of Cancer, examined women aged 30-89, identifying those who developed breast cancer between the years of 1987 and 2010. They then compared the number of deaths before and after the screening program was introduced. Overall, they found that less women are dying from the condition every year but that the decline was just as significant in the age groups that are not being screened.
Associate Professor Henrik Støvring from Aarhus University, Denmark, believes that screening was much more beneficial in saving lives before breast cancer treatment improved, back in the 1980s. However, now that there are more efficient treatment methods, their benefits have decreased.
He also explains that there is a belief that breast cancer patients who have been screened “live longer” than other breast cancer patients. The reason, he explains, is that the cancer may be detected earlier, moving the diagnosis forward in time. But it doesn’t necessarily mean their life as a whole will be longer.
"The women who are invited to screening live longer because all breast cancer patients live longer, and they do so because we now have better drugs and more effective chemotherapy, and because we have cancer care pathways, which means the healthcare system reacts faster than it did a decade ago. But it does not appear that fewer women die of breast cancer as a result of mammography screening," he explains.
He also points out that many of these screenings result in the diagnosis of tiny cancerous growths, which likely wouldn’t impact a woman's health in the long run. The unnecessary diagnosis, which probably would have gone unnoticed until her natural death, will make her life more difficult and cost her a lot of money. “The problem is that we are not currently able to tell the difference between the small cancer tumours that will kill you and those that will not," he adds.
So should you avoid getting a breast cancer screening? Not necessarily. Støvring believes that this new research should encourage the investigation of whether there is something other than screening could have a better effect. “If a doctor could instead examine women's breasts with his or her hands, what is known as palpation, at regular intervals, then we would avoid much of the overdiagnosis."