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Study: Mammograms over-diagnose more than they save

Few things in life are more devastating than a medical misdiagnosis. Oftentimes, victims of misdiagnosis go through painful and expensive treatments for illnesses they never had. In recent years, studies in the United States have suggested that mammograms could cause many American women to be misdiagnosed with a life-threatening breast cancer.

A recent study out of Britain reached the same conclusion. The review by an independent medical panel concluded that for every life mammograms save, around three women were over-diagnosed and were unnecessarily treated for a cancer that did not pose a threat to their lives. In some cases, women received dangerous yet unnecessary treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiation

The review, which was published this week in the Lancet journal, was led by Cancer Research U.K. and Britain’s department of health. The review analyzed the findings from 11 studies conducted in Canada, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. The review concluded that mammograms save the lives of about 1,300 British women each year, but 4,000 women are over-diagnosed.

The chief executive of Cancer Research U.K. said that breast cancer screenings are very useful in treating cancers that would be life-threatening. However, because it is impossible to tell which cancers will end up being deadly, many cancers that would not be life-threatening are also treated. Mammograms are offered to British women ages 50 to 70 every three years as part of a cancer screening program funded by the government.

Critics of routine screening argue that patients are mislead about mammograms and often not warned about the potential risks of being misdiagnosed or over-diagnosed. A government-appointed cancer task force in the United States recommends that women who are at average risk of cancer gets mammograms every two years starting at age 50. Private groups, such as the American Cancer Society, suggest more frequent testing.

Source:  Associated Press, “Mammograms: For 1 life saved, 3 women overtreated,” Maria Cheng, Oct. 30, 2012