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New study reveals screening is best for the breast

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by Cancer Research UK | News

22 August 2002

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Screening for breast cancer can reduce the need for mastectomy, according to a report by a leading Cancer Research UK scientist, published in the British Medical Journal1.

The study of 60,000 women found the rates of breast removal surgery fell by almost half following the introduction of a screening programme.

Researchers believe screening detects cancer early, so women can be treated with minor surgery that conserves the breast rather than radical surgery that results in its removal.

Study author Dr Stephen Duffy, from the charity’s Mathematics, Statistics and Epidemiology Department in London says: “Some scientists believe screening programmes could be harmful to women by increasing the rates of aggressive treatments such as mastectomy. But this study shows that screening actually reduces the need for major surgery by detecting the disease before it spreads.

“When breast cancer is caught early, women can be treated with less invasive surgery such as lumpectomy, where only the tumour and a section around it is removed from the breast.”

Researchers analysed data from women in Florence, Italy, aged 50-69 years, who were invited for screening between 1990 and 1996 and to subsequent screens at two-year intervals.

They found that the rates of mastectomies declined by 40 per cent following the introduction of the screening programme while the rates of breast conserving surgery increased by about 50 per cent over the same period.

The decline in mastectomies was paralleled by a drop in the number of late stage tumours detected, while the increase in breast conserving surgery was matched by a rise in the number of early tumours detected during screening.

Dr Duffy says: “The statistics show that minor operations are replacing radical surgery in the treatment of breast cancer as a direct result of screening.

“In addition to saving lives, screening can catch cancer early and help women to avoid having their breast removed which can be a traumatic experience.”

Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK says: “This is a very interesting study which adds to the growing evidence demonstrating the positive effect of breast screening services.

“Cancer Research UK is not only working to save lives but also to improve the quality of life for patients.”


  1. British Medical Journal325 p.418