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Breast cancer screening does save lives

By Lilian Anekwe

Breast cancer screening reduces the risk of death from the disease by more than a third, according to new research.

In one of the first study to directly assess the impact of the UK's breast cancer screening programme on mortality has shown that it reduces deaths from breast cancer by 48%.

An analysis of the results from the East Anglian breast cancer screening programme compared the screening histories of women who had died of the disease with women who had not.

After adjusting for self-selection bias to account for poorer health in women who chose not to attend, researchers calculated that women who attended screening had at 35% reduction in breast cancer mortality.

Professor Stephen Duffy, lead researcher of the British Journal of Cancer paper and a specialist in cancer screening for Cancer Research UK, said the results were the ‘strongest evidence yet that screening programmes save lives'.

But one breast cancer specialist said the drop in deaths was in fact due to the way treatment has improved.

Speaking to the BBC, Professor Michael Baum, a private consultant in breast surgery, who was opposed to the introduction of the NHS breast screening programme, said it was treatment and not screening that reduced mortality.

‘The 30% figure is consistent with the drop in mortality we have seen since better treatment began in the 1980s' he said.

‘If you screened 1,000 women over ten years, one life will be saved. In the meantime many women will go through the distress of false alarms. All the women I see have found the lump themselves, not as a result of screening.'

Meanwhile, new research suggest that women in their early 20s should be reincluded in the national cervical cancer screening programme.

Under 25s were withdrawn from the programme in 2004 because of the relatively low number of cancers detected.

But a team from St Guy's and St Thomas' hospital in London found the number of women aged 20-24 with high grade CIN3 lesions increased from 15.8% of all cases in 1999 to 19.3% in 2004.

Lead researcher Dr Amanda Herbert called for early screening to be reinstated to detect pre-cancerous lesions earlier.

But Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Cancer Screening Programmes, said cervical cancer in women under 25 were ‘extremely rare'.

Breast screening

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