Breast screening leads to needless treatment

The NHS breast screening programme has been criticised for putting a third of women through uneccessary treatment

Evidence from a new trial suggests breast screening mammograms lead to overdiagnosis by picking up many cancers that might just have gone away if they had not been detected.

Scientists from the Nordic Cochrane Collaboration argue that up to a third of women who go for breast screening are over-diagnosed and are therefore over treated causing stress and overspending.

‘If you go back in history there are many examples of breast cancer that have regressed,’ says Per-Henrik Zahl who led the Swedish trial published in the Lancet Oncology journal.

‘But these days doctors could be held liable if they failed to treat a patient who became very ill or died,’ he says.

The scientists argue that the detection of a tiny lump at mammogram should not necessarily result in immediate surgery, but could instead be given a needle biopsy and a course of drugs while monitoring the growth of the tumour.

Mette Kalager, from the Harvard School of Public Health says: ‘The problem with overdiagnosis is that women are treated as patients despite there being no potential benefit from it.’

Klim McPherson, visiting professor in public health epidemiology at Oxford University, says women need to be given better information about the risks, as well as the benefits so that they can make an informed decision on whether to go for screening.

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