- Nearly all are given aggressive treatments even though they might never have experienced any symptoms during their lifetime
- Treatments can involve months of agony and have severe impact on life
- Over 99 per cent of those diagnosed with breast cancer will have surgery
- Dilemma for doctors is that it is not possible to distinguish between those for whom disease could be fatal, and those who will never have symptoms
About 4,000 women each year endure gruelling, unnecessary treatment for breast cancers that were not life-threatening, a review has found.
For every life saved by early detection, three women have therapy they do not need, according to the most definitive investigation of breast cancer screening so far.
Nearly all are given aggressive treatments – including chemotherapy, radiotherapy or having a breast removed – even though they might never have experienced any symptoms during their lifetime because their cancers were slow growing or non-aggressive.
These treatments can involve months of agony and have a severe impact on a woman’s quality of life.
Over 99 per cent of those diagnosed with breast cancer will have surgery; of which 25 per cent will have a mastectomy and 75 per cent an operation to have a lump removed.
At the same time, 87 per cent of patients are given hormonal drugs that can cause hot flushes, mood changes and sickness, while 80 per cent have radiotherapy.
This can cause tiredness for months and swelling or damage to skin, while a very small number experience side-effects including damage to the lungs or heart.
One in four has chemotherapy, which commonly causes tiredness, lower immunity, sickness and hair loss.
Although the study stressed the programme saved around 1,300 lives a year, it also led to an estimated 4,000 women being ‘overdiagnosed’.
The dilemma for doctors is that it is not possible to distinguish between those for whom the disease could be fatal, and women who have cancer ‘under the microscope’ but are unlikely ever to experience symptoms.
The review concludes that although screening does more good than harm, it is a closer call than previously thought. It said the programme remains worthwhile even though less than 0.5 per cent of women screened will have their life extended in the next 20 years.
However, the authors stressed that the estimated two million women who undergo testing each year must be given ‘clear and unbiased’ information about the pros and cons – something which is currently lacking.
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