Over 7,000 women a year get false breast cancer

Posted on Feb 10, 2010 in Uncategorized

From The Times January 19, 2010

David Rose, Health Correspondent

Thousands of women who attend routine breast screening checks are wrongly told that they have life-threatening cancer and undergo unnecessary treatment each year, researchers claim today.

An independent scientific review of the NHS breast screening programme accuses the Government of providing misleading propaganda to persuade women of the benefits of screening, without mentioning the drawbacks.

Ministers, health charities and the majority of doctors encourage women to have regular mammograms in middle age on the basis of estimates that the checks save 1,400 lives each year.

However, the review by the Nordic Cochrane Centre, in Copenhagen, disputes the value of the checks, saying that there is “no convincing evidence” that screening has saved so many lives.

Meanwhile, doctors warned that continuing disputes over the value of breast screening could cause confusion among women and could lead to dangerous diseases being missed.

All women aged 50 to 70 are offered breast cancer screening in Britain. More than 1.7 million women take up the invitation every year.

As well as detecting tumours developing in the breast, mammography also identifies women who have ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) — precancerous lesions contained in the milk ducts, which may develop into cancer.

Up to half of women who receive a diagnosis of DCIS never go on to develop breast cancer but, as it is not possible to predict who will, all women with abnormalities are treated with surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Professor Peter Gøtzsche, the lead author of the Cochrane review, said that more than 21,000 women aged 50 to 69 had breast cancer diagnosed in Britain in 2007. He added that one in three of the cancers diagnosed among the screened age group could be “unnecessary” diagnoses of benign DCIS.

“Each year 7,000 women in the UK receive an unnecessary breast cancer diagnosis and unnecessary breast cancer treatment because of overdiagnosis in the NHS breast screening programme,” he said.

The Department of Health agreed to review the information leaflets that it publishes on breast screening after a previous study from the Cochrane researchers and a letter from 23 health professionals to The Times criticised their biased nature.

The latest review directly criticises the official annual review of the breast screening programme, published by the Department of Health in 2008.

“The review exaggerates the benefit, omits the harms, and looks like propaganda aimed at persuasion,” it says. “We arrive at a different conclusion than those who wrote the annual review. There is no convincing evidence that [screening] has saved lives.”

Julietta Patnick, the director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, rejected Professor Gøtzsche’s conclusions. “Numerous independent studies have shown breast cancer screening reduces mortality,” she said.

“A report from the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that there is a 35 per cent reduction in mortality from breast cancer among regularly screened women aged 50 to 69 years.”