Breast Screening

The life-time risk of breast cancer is in the region of 12% for an average female. This does not mean that one in eight women will die of breast cancer.

Given that this is a common cancer and that currently we cannot prevent it, does it help to detect it earlier with the use of screening mammography (X Rays of the breasts). The answer is yes, but the evidence is not as convincing as we would like or that many had hoped.

Currently the NHS offers mammographic screening, to all resident women every three years from the age of 50 to 70, and thereafter on request from the individual. It is estimated that this may produce a 6% survival advantage but this is debated.

The downside is that although most women with cancer are detected, some (up to 20%) are missed first time around, and many women, (about one in 5 to10) are recalled (with attendant alarm) when in fact there is nothing wrong. Mammograms are also uncomfortable and of course X Rays are irradiation with consequent risks.

Discussions continue regarding the age groups, the frequencies, the reading techniques and technology. Perhaps the most hotly debated area at present is the use of mammography to check on women at increased risk; such as those with a family history of breast cancer.