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One in three breast cancers 'harmless'

10th July 2009

A new study using data collected from five countries has suggested that a third of breast cancers detected by mammogram may actually be harmless.

breastcancer

The study, which includes data from the UK and is published in the British Medical Journal, indicates some women may have had unnecessary treatment for cancers that were unlikely to kill them or spread.

However, because it is not possible to distinguish between lethal and harmless cancers, all are treated.

Researchers from the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark said: "Screening for cancer may lead to earlier detection of lethal cancers but also detects harmless ones that will not cause death or symptoms.

"The detection of such cancers, which would not have been identified clinically in someone's remaining lifetime, is called over-diagnosis and can only be harmful to those who experience it."

For the study, data was used from five countries that had screening programmes. It included information for England and Wales from between 1971 and 1999.

Professor Gilbert Welch, of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy, wrote that screening for cancer is an opportunity to help some women but also has the consequence of leading others to be treated needlessly.

But Professor Julietta Patnick, director of NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, estimates that screening saves 1,400 lives a year and that one in eight women diagnosed with breast cancer would have been missed without screening.

The charities Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Breast Cancer Care said screening remains the best option for detecting breast cancer at an early stage.

 

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