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Do Mammograms Save Lives and Prevent Breast Cancer Or Lead to Unnecessary Treatment?

Posted on the 26 October 2011 by Periscope @periscopepost
Do mammograms save lives and prevent breast cancer or lead to unnecessary treatment?

Breast cancer awareness pink ribbons. Photo credit: Aine D,

The Department of Health has ordered an independent inquiry into the UK’s breast screening programme. Scientists have suggested that the NHS programme lead to over-diagnosis, which means women are subjected to unnecessary treatment. But the NHS argues that screening saves 1,400 lives a year.

Useful inquiry. An Independent editorial welcomed the inquiry, but only if it was truly open to both sides of the argument. The editorial questioned the decision of government cancer adviser Sir Mike Richards to involve Cancer Research UK, as the charity has “a stated policy of trying to increase the numbers of women screened.”

Limits of mammograms. Writing on a New York Times blog, Tara Parker Pope reported that breast cancer screening is limited in its potential to save lives: “One of the reasons screening doesn’t make much difference is that advances in breast cancer treatment make it possible to save even many women with more advanced cancers”, she said. Parker Pope also said that mammograms have no application to aggressive cancers, as these would prove deadly whenever they were detected, or slow-growing cancers, as these would be picked up without a scan.

Right to choose. Writing for The Independent, Margaret McCartney took issue with the current “paternalistic” government message on breast screening, and argued that the patient should have the right to full information on all options.

End to over-diagnosis. Sarah Boseley agreed on The Guardian‘s Comment is Free: “Women should be told of the potential harms as well as benefits so they can make an informed choice – and where the X-ray picks something up, perhaps she can sometimes be given a waiting and watching option, as in men’s prostate cancer”, she said. Boseley reported that recent research found “not every spot on the X-ray will turn into aggressive cancer”, as some early-stage cancers may disappear without treatment.

Life saving? However, scientists are not in agreement over the issue. Last year, UK researchers recommended the breast screening programme should be extended following a pilot study, according to the BBC.

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