Breast cancer screening aims to identify signs that breast cancer is developing, spotting breast cancers early when they are often too small to see or feel but are usually easier to treat. One in eight women in the UK will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life and the UK breast cancer screening programme finds cancer in about eight of every 1,000 women tested. The NHS states that early screening saves approximately 1,300 lives per year.
However, researchers at University College London have found that women who fall into the low-risk category when it comes to breast cancer – estimated to be a third of the population – would actually be better off not being screened at all.
Their findings showed that a screening programme based on the level of risk of developing cancer over a lifetime will not substantially increase the number of women who are missed but will reduce the number of women who go through unnecessary breast cancer screening tests.
Overdiagnosis and breast cancer
On first evaluation of breast cancer screening, it might seem to patients that there are no downsides to tests that could pick up early signs of breast cancer and potentially save your life. Yet, breast cancer screening can deliver an abnormal result that means women are called back for further and more invasive tests, often experiencing great distress, and eventually they are found to be cancer-free.
A more sophisticated approach to breast cancer
The researchers at UCL propound the view that genetic testing could inform women of their individual risk and the sector of the population that are most at risk could be entered into the screening programme. Genetic screening brings with it its own set of concerns, though, and at the Thames Breast Clinic we can discuss all the possible implications before you decide to go ahead.