Routine breast cancer screening leading to overdiagnosis

Bloomberg News reports that a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that “as many as one in four cancers picked up in routine breast screenings pose no threat to a woman’s health.”

The AP reports that “researchers took advantage of the staggered decade-long introduction of a screening program in Norway, starting in 1996.” This “allowed them to compare the number of breast cancers in counties where screening was offered with those in areas that didn’t yet have the program. Their analysis also included a decade before mammograms were offered.”

The Washington Post “The Checkup” blog reports, “The study included nearly 40,000 women with invasive breast cancer, nearly 8,000 of them diagnosed after routine screening was instituted.”

The investigators, “through complicated calculations…determined that between 15 percent and 25 percent of those diagnoses fell into the category of overdiagnosis – the detection of tumors that would have done no harm had they gone undetected.”

The Boston Globe “Daily Dose” blog reports, “While experts agree that some breast cancers are overdiagnosed and overtreated, the notion that women should consider skipping mammograms out of concerns about finding harmless cancers is bound to be controversial.”

For instance, the National Journal points out that “in 2009, the US Preventive Services Task Force caused a furor when it recommended that women get mammograms every other year, starting at age 50.”

However, “Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius immediately rejected it,” and said, “I would be very surprised if any private insurance company changed its mammography-coverage decisions as a result of this action.”

WebMD reports, “The number of women who are overdiagnosed in the US is likely to be higher, experts say, because women in this country often start getting mammograms in their 40s, rather than in their 50s as women in Norway do, and Americans are generally screened more often, every year instead of every two years.

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