Dianthus Medical Blog Archive

Breast cancer screening

When I listened to the news on the radio this morning, the lead story was about a "major new study" that had found that breast cancer screening does more good than harm.

It's an important question. There are certainly women who are alive today who would not have been alive today if their cancers had not been detected via breast screening. Screening save lives, and that's undeniably a good thing.

However, there are some serious downsides to breast cancer screening as well. Many women receive false positive diagnoses (ie they are told they have breast cancer when in reality they haven't). That will certainly lead to unnecessary anxiety, and often to unnecessary treatment, sometimes even mastectomies. Disappointingly, the letter that the NHS uses to invite women to attend for breast cancer screening glosses over the harms, and seems to give a very biased view of screening, for which the NHS has been heavily criticised in the past.

It's hard to say whether the benefits outweigh the harms, and that's undoubtedly not a question that can be answered with a one-size-fits all approach. Some women will consider that even a small chance that their life could be saved will outweigh any risks, others won't. It's a personal decision. And that decision can only be made if women have access to good quality data on what the benefits and harms are.

So I was looking forward to reading this major new study. Sadly, however, it doesn't yet seem to be published. According to the BBC, it's published in the Journal of Medical Screening, although there is as yet no sign of it on their website. I find it a bit annoying when health stories appear in the mainstream media before the research is published in peer-reviewed journals. Surely it wouldn't be beyond the wit of the publishers to co-ordinate publication of the article with any press embargoes?

I'll post again if and when the study is published.

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