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Study Finds Breast Cancer Screening Saves Lives (dateline October 23, 2006)

While health care professionals have long told women to get screened for breast cancer, research has been mixed as to whether screening can prevent deaths from the disease. However, a new study published in The Cochran Library finds that for every 2,000 women screened for breast cancer, one woman will live longer because of early detection. The study also found that ten women out of 2,000 will undergo unnecessary treatment due to screening. Experts say that the study illustrates that breast cancer screening saves lives, but advantages and disadvantages of screening should be considered.

"This latest Cochrane review concludes that breast cancer screening saves lives, specifically by reducing breast cancer mortality," said Professor John Toy of Cancer Research UK, in a news release.

However, Professor Toy acknowledges that breast cancer screening can lead to inaccurate diagnoses, which can lead to unnecessary treatment. For example, while mammography is the gold standard in breast cancer detect and finds about 80% of all breast cancers, some suspicious abnormalities that appear on mammogram films may not be cancerous. Therefore, a small number of women may be required to undergo additional testing or breast biopsies for conditions that turn out to be benign.

Professor Toy recommends considering the advantages and disadvantages of breast cancer screening. However, Dr. Toy says that breast cancer researchers virtually universally acknowledge that screening saves lives.

The American Cancer Society recommends the following guidelines for the detection of breast cancer in women with no signs or symptoms of the disease:

  • Women 20 years of age and older should women should be told about the benefits and limitations of breast self-exams (BSE). Women should be aware of how their breasts normally feel and report any new breast change to a health professional as soon as they are found. [Note: while the American Cancer Society recently amended its guidelines and no longer recommends monthly BSE, many healthcare professionals believe strongly in this easy, no cost method of screening for breast cancer and continue to recommend BSE on a monthly basis].
  • Women 20-39 should have a physical examination of the breast (CBE or clinical breast exam) at least every three years, performed by health care professional such as a physician, physician assistant, nurse or nurse practitioner. CBE may often be received in the same appointment as a Pap smear. Women 20-39 should also perform monthly BSE.
  • Women 40 and older should have a physical examination of the breast (CBE or clinical breast exam) every year, performed by a health care professional, such as a physician, physician assistant, nurse or nurse practitioner. CBE can often be performed in the same visit as a mammogram. Monthly BSE should also be performed.
  • Women 40 years of age should receive a screening mammogram every year. The National Cancer Institute recommends mammography every one to two years for women between 40-50 years of age. Beginning at age 50, screening mammography should be performed every year.

Additional Resources and References

  • The October 18, 2006 Cancer Research UK news release, "Breast cancer screening "saves lives" says Cancer Research UK," was published on the organization's website,
  • To learn about guidelines for early breast cancer detection, please visit