Screening of younger women cuts deaths

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The Independent Online
BREAST SCREENING younger women is effective in picking up cancers but may not be worth doing, researchers report.

Two studies published in The Lancet today show that screening saves lives irrespective of the age of the women screened.

In one study of more than 200,000 women around the country who were followed for 16 years, the death rate was 27 per cent lower in those screened. In the second study the death rate was 21 per cent lower in those screened. Women aged between 45 and 49 benefited just as much as women over 50.

In the UK, routine breast screening is limited to women over 50 on the basis that in younger women cancers are too rare and too difficult to spot, because of the greater density of the breast. This claim is challenged by these results.

But an editorial in the journal says other factors, such as the economic cost to society and the emotional cost to the women concerned, have to be considered before screening for younger age groups is introduced. For every 10,000 women aged 40 to 49 who are screened, about 30 would be found to have cancer. But another 610 would suffer the anxiety of an abnormal mammogram and 120 would undergo unnecessary biopsies - surgical removal of a sample of tissue for laboratory checks.

The editorial also points out that the cost of running the programme for those aged 40 to 49 might save more lives if it were instead spent on chasing up the over-50s who currently fail to attend for screening and ensuring they got proper treatment.

"The solution is not to keep doing more trials of screening but to recognise that right now cancer, and particularly breast cancer, causes great fear. This fear must be addressed - through education and research," says the editorial.

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