Harms from breast cancer screening outweigh benefits if death caused by treatment is included
Michael Baum, Professor emeritus of surgery at University College London says that, while deaths from breast cancer may be avoided, any benefit will be more than outweighed by deaths due to the long term adverse effects of treatment.
He estimates that, for every 10, 000 women invited for screening, three to four breast cancer deaths are avoided at the cost of 2.72 to 9.25 deaths from the long term toxicity of radiotherapy.
These figures contrast with an independent report on breast cancer screening, led by Sir Michael Marmot and published in November last year. Marmot and his committee were charged with asking whether the screening programme should continue, and if so, what women should be told about the risks of overdiagnosis.
They concluded that screening should continue because it prevented 43 deaths from breast cancer for every 10,000 women invited for screening.
The downside was an estimated 19% rate of overdiagnosis: 129 of the 681 cancers detected in those 10,000 women would have done them no harm during their lifetime. However, those women would have undergone unnecessary treatment, including surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
But despite this higher than previous estimate of overdiagnosis, they concluded that the breast screening programme should continue.
The report also judged that screening reduces the risk of dying from breast cancer by 20%. But Professor Baum disputes these figures, saying the analysis takes no account of improvements in treatment since these trials were done, which will reduce the benefits of screening. Nor does it make use of more recent observational data.