Breast cancer screening programme faces review

Caroline Cassidy

The NHS breast cancer screening programme is facing a major independent review after mounting criticism about the information given to women.

Breast cancer screening risks
Breast cancer screening risks

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Announced by Professor Sir Mike Richards, a team of experts will look into a body of evidence suggesting screening does not increase the number of lives saved and, in some cases, may lead to women undergoing unnecessary treatment.

In particular, the team will review an NHS leaflet that critics say fails to warn women of potential risks.

Professor Susan Bewley, consultant obstetrician at King's College London, penned an open letter, published in the British Medical Journal, advising that the leaflet "exaggerated benefits and did not spell out the risks" and suggested women should be informed of "genuine doubts" about the screening programme.

Recent research by the Nordic Cochrane Centre suggests improved treatment and not screening programmes are the reason for a fall in breast cancer deaths in recent years.

In a study of 110,000 women, the Cochrane Centre's researchers found little difference between death rates amongst those who were given mammograms and those who were not.

Last year, a similar study by the Cochrane team also suggested that one in three breast cancers detected by the screening process may be harmless, leading thousands of women to undergo unnecessary treatment.

The £75m NHS screening programme currently invites women between the ages of 50 and 70 to three-yearly mammograms and almost two million women are screened in the UK each year.

But experts have for some time questioned NHS advice that one breast cancer death is prevented for every 400 women screened for 10 years.

Professor Michael Baum, who resigned from the NHS screening committee more than 10 years ago in a bid to allow women a truly informed choice over screening and treatment, claims for each life saved, 10 healthy women undergo unnecessary treatment.

He told the Daily Mail, "It's an inescapable fact that the biggest effect on mortality is among women under 50 - who are not screened. There are alternative ways of saving lives."

Prof Richards insisted that, should the review find that the "balance of harms outweighs the benefits of breast screening", he would put the findings before ministers.

What do you think - are women being properly informed about breast cancer screening? Leave your comments below...