Limitations in the Effect of Screening on Breast Cancer Mortality

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Purpose Randomized, controlled trials showed that screening reduces breast cancer mortality rates, but some recent observational studies have concluded that programmatic screening has had minor effect on breast cancer mortality rates. This apparent contradiction might be explained by the use of aggregated data in observational studies. We assessed the long-term effect of screening using individual-level data. Materials and Methods Using data from mammography screening in the Copenhagen and Danish national registers, we compared the observed breast cancer mortality rate in women invited to screening with the expected rate in absence of screening. The effect was examined using the "naïve model," which included all breast cancer deaths; the "follow-up model," which counted only breast cancer deaths in women diagnosed after their first invitation to screening; and the "evaluation model," which is similar to the follow-up model during screening age, but after screening age, which counted only breast cancer deaths and person-years in women diagnosed during screening age. Results We included 18,781,292 person-years, 976,743 of which were from women invited to screening. The naïve and follow-up models showed, respectively, 10% and 11% reduction in breast cancer mortality after invitation to screening. However, many breast cancer deaths occurred in women whose cancer was diagnosed when they were no longer eligible for screening. Accounting for this dilution, the evaluation model showed a 20% (95% CI, 10% to 29%) reduction in breast cancer mortality after invitation to screening. Conclusion Screening had a clear long-term beneficial effect with a 20% reduction in breast cancer-associated mortality in the invited population. However, this effect was, by nature, restricted to breast cancer deaths in women who could potentially benefit from screening. Our study highlights the complexity in evaluating the long-term effect of breast cancer screening from observational data.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Clinical Oncology
Issue number30
Pages (from-to)2988-2995
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 2018

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