Benefits and harms of breast cancer screening programs


Many countries worldwide invite women of a certain age and at certain intervals to take part in breast cancer screening programs. The reason behind these programs is that they should help lower the mortality rate in breast cancer patients. Usually, these programs take place every one or two years. The importance of screening programs, however, is highly debated and widely discussed.

A recent study, for example, declares that annual breast cancer screening with mammography starting at age 40 results in a nearly 40% reduction in breast cancer-specific deaths compared with screening at less frequent intervals.1 Another recent study, however, shows that breast screening is unlikely to reduce breast cancer mortality or lead to less invasive treatment, but rather risks over treating women.2

Benefits and harms for mammography screening3

Screening may give an indication of cancer before any symptoms developScreening may miss a number of cancers and provide false reassurance: no cancer screening test is 100% accurate
Screening may find cancer at an early stage when treatment is more likely to be curative, increasing the chance of recoveryScreening may lead to false positive findings that can cause women unnecessary fear of death
Screening may lead to fewer breast cancer-specific deathsScreening may lead to over diagnosis because harmless lesions are also detected and unnecessarily treated
Screening mammograms acquired with new systems expose women to very small dose levelsScreening mammograms, like all X-rays, expose women to radiation dose, which could increase the risk of cancer


The list, of course, is not complete. There are many more arguments for and against mammography screening. But what should one believe? Do the pros outweigh the cons – or vice versa? Whatever the opinion: In the end it’s every single life that could be saved that matters.

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