Fifth of women invited for a mammogram don't need one, expert says 

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Fifth of women invited for a mammogram don’t need one as they are a low risk of contracting the disease, expert says

  • Professor Gilbert suggests that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach no longer works
  • It raises idea of stopping mammograms for women at low-risk of breast cancer
  • They are estimated to make up fifth of women invited for breast screening in UK


Mammograms are not needed by a fifth of women in the UK who are invited for them, according to a top breast cancer expert.

It would be better to rule hundreds of thousands of women out of screening, sparing them the worry over mammogram results because they are at such low risk of the disease, according to Professor Fiona Gilbert, from Cambridge University.

Professor Gilbert, president of the European Society of Breast Imaging, who helped draw up national UK guidelines on breast screening, suggested a rethink of the current system when she addressed the UK Interdisciplinary Breast Cancer Symposium.

Breast cancer screening is vital for the vast majority of women, saving around 1,300 lives a year. But around one in 100 women – around 20,000 a year across the UK – go through the anxiety of an abnormality being found which would never turn into cancer or cause them harm

Breast cancer screening is vital for the vast majority of women, saving around 1,300 lives a year. But around one in 100 women – around 20,000 a year across the UK – go through the anxiety of an abnormality being found which would never turn into cancer or cause them harm

Currently all women aged 50 to 70 registered with a GP receive an invitation every three years for a mammogram, unless they have a strong family history of breast cancer or a genetic risk which means that they need more frequent appointments.

However, the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach no longer works, Professor Gilbert suggested, raising the idea of completely stopping mammograms for women at low-risk of breast cancer. 

This group can now be easily identified using their age, a questionnaire about their lifestyle and a genetic test from a cheek swab. They are estimated to make up a fifth of women invited for breast screening in the UK – around 400,000 women.

Professor Gilbert said: ‘Women are at different risks and mammography is certainly not a perfect test. For low-risk women, they should not have to face the anxiety of a mammogram, or going through a biopsy for a lump when it is unnecessary.’

Breast cancer screening is vital for the vast majority of women, saving around 1,300 lives a year. But around one in 100 women – around 20,000 a year across the UK – go through the anxiety of an abnormality being found which would never turn into cancer or cause them harm.

Mammograms are not needed by a fifth of women in the UK who are invited for them, according to a top breast cancer expert

Mammograms are not needed by a fifth of women in the UK who are invited for them, according to a top breast cancer expert 

For low-risk women to be spared mammograms, more research is needed and the UK National Screening Committee would need to approve the change.

Low-risk women may also need to update their questionnaires every five years, and have just one initial mammogram to ensure they do not have dense breasts.

Questionnaires, asking questions about alcohol consumption, a woman’s weight and age, and long-term use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) are already in use in various studies, along with tests to see if people carry genetic quirks which make them more likely to get breast cancer.

Professor Gilbert said: ‘A typical low-risk woman would be younger, without dense breasts, someone who is of a normal weight, with low alcohol consumption and a healthy lifestyle.’

Dr Simon Vincent, director of research at Breast Cancer Now, who hosted the symposium, said: ‘We welcome research that looks at the potential of a more tailored approach to breast screening and we are currently funding studies to help us better understand the benefits and risks of a service based on a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.’ 

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