Screening with mammography uses X-ray to try to find breast cancer before a lump can be felt. The goal is to treat cancer early, when a cure is more likely. The review includes seven trials that involved 600,000 women who were randomly assigned to receive screening mammograms or not. The review found that screening for breast cancer likely reduces breast cancer mortality, but the magnitude of the effect is uncertain. Screening will also result in some women getting a cancer diagnosis even though their cancer would not have led to death or sickness. Currently, it is not possible to tell which women these are, and they are therefore likely to have breasts or lumps removed and to receive radiotherapy unnecessarily. The review estimated that screening leads to a reduction in breast cancer mortality of 15% and to 30% overdiagnosis and overtreatment. This means that for every 2000 women invited for screening throughout 10 years, one will have her life prolonged. In addition, 10 healthy women, who would not have been diagnosed if there had not been screening, will be diagnosed as breast cancer patients and will be treated unnecessarily. Furthermore, more than 200 women will experience important psychological distress for many months because of false positive findings.
It is thus not clear whether screening does more good than harm. Women invited to screening should be fully informed of both the benefits and harms. To help ensure that the requirements for informed consent for women contemplating whether or not to attend a screening program can be met, we have written an evidence-based leaflet for lay people that is available in several languages on www.cochrane.dk.