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Mammogram screenings don’t reduce cancer death rates, study finds

Posted by on Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 @ 10:00 am.


By Monte Morin

February 11, 2014

Mammograms: Who it the world are they good for?

Photo courtesy news.harvard.edu

Annual mammography screenings help uncover cases of breast cancer, but they do not reduce the number of cancer deaths, according to a study of nearly 90,000 Canadian women.

Yearly mammography screenings for women ages 40 to 59 do not reduce breast cancer deaths, even though they make a diagnosis of illness more likely, according to a long-term study of nearly 90,000 Canadian women.

The research, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal, is the latest in a series of studies that question the value of annual breast X-rays for pre-menopausal women and whether too many women are being "overdiagnosed" by the popular test.

"We found absolutely no benefit in terms of reduction of deaths from the use of mammography," said study leader Dr. Anthony Miller, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

The controversial finding is unlikely to trigger an immediate change in national screening policies, although it will enliven an already heated debate over screening. Experts have been arguing the merits of breast X-rays since 2009, when a government panel recommended that most women under 50 could safely skip the test. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force determined that the chances that a 40-year-old woman would be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in the next 10 years was 1.44% and that her odds of dying from it were just 0.19%.

However, the breast cancers that strike women in their 40s are often more aggressive, and they account for about 17% of deaths from the disease, according to the American Cancer Society.

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The ACS and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend annual mammograms for women beginning at age 40, and the National Cancer Institute advises women in their 40s to have the test once every year or two. The Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care advises women to have mammograms every two to three years between the ages of 50 and 74.

The British Medical Journal report, based on data from the Canadian National Breast Screening Study, argues that mammography all too often finds small cancers that would never become dangerous if left alone. Roughly half of all cancers found by mammography — yet undetected through physical examination — fell into this category, the study authors wrote.

The researchers examined the medical records of 89,835 women in six Canadian provinces between the ages of 40 and 59. All of the trial participants received annual physical breast examinations, while half of them also had yearly mammogram screenings for five years, beginning in 1980.

Over the next 25 years, 3,250 of the 44,925 women in the mammography arm of the study were diagnosed with breast cancer, along with 3,133 of the 44,910 women in the control group. In addition, 500 patients in the mammography group died of breast cancer, as did 505 women in the control group.

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