Breast cancer screening “proves its worth”
The Flemish Agency for Care and Health (VAZG) has restated its commitment to breast cancer screening for women between 50 and 69, following reports last week on an international study which called systematic screening into question.
Every year, some 1,300 women die of breast cancer in Flanders, the most common form of cancer among women, and the leading cause of death. Since 2001, the Flemish government has supported routine twice-yearly scans for women aged 50-69. In 2009, more than 182,000 women, or just under half of the target population, turned up for screening. Since 1989, deaths from breast cancer have fallen by a quarter, and in the developed world, the numbers show a steady decline.
But in an article published in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal, a Lyon-based study suggests that screening is useless and that the fall in deaths can better be attributed to improved medical techniques employed once a tumour is detected. The study compared six regions in neighbouring pairs: Sweden and Norway; Northern Ireland and the Republic; and the Netherlands and Flanders. The study found that Flanders and the Netherlands had a similar evolution of breast cancer death statistics, despite the Dutch introducing routine screening a decade before Flanders.
Opponents of the programme point to the cost – €65 for each scan – as well as the number of false positive results. And for every woman undergoing a scan, there is a risk from exposure to radiation.
But according to the VAZG, between 23% and 30% of breast cancers are detected in an early stage, which means less invasive treatments and a survival rate after five years of up to 93%. “Breast cancer screening proves its worth every year,” a spokesperson said.