Our policy on breast cancer screening

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Screening using mammography is an effective way to diagnose breast cancer early. Early diagnosis is important because it hugely increases the chances of survival – the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP) found that for women diagnosed at the earliest stage in England, the chance of surviving for three years is better than 99%, however for those diagnosed at the latest stage this drops to just 27.9%.

On the balance of the evidence, we believe that the breast screening programme is a valuable tool in preventing breast cancer deaths. However, it is vital women are given all the available information about the potential harms and benefits of screening. 

Breast screening carries a risk of ‘overdiagnosis’. Through screening, a woman may be diagnosed with and treated for a cancer that, although real, may have developed so slowly that it would not have caused her any harm during her lifetime. It is not yet possible to tell for sure which cancers will develop into harmful disease and which will not. As a result of the debate surrounding the relative harms and benefits of the breast cancer screening programme, Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health commissioned an independent review of the programme in 2012.

The review found that the breast screening programme probably reduced mortality from breast cancer by about 20% in women invited to screening, a reduction of approximately 1300 breast cancer deaths a year. Unfortunately, roughly 4000 women a year will also be overdiagnosed, although the panel made clear that there is a lack of really clear data on which to base this estimate.

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