Gregor McNie: Early cancer screening is crucial in saving lives

DESPITE news that the uptake of check-ups has fallen, Gregor McNie says that quick detection can reduce deaths by 20 per cent

Tuesday, 3rd May 2016, 12:02 pm
Updated Tuesday, 3rd May 2016, 1:07 pm
File picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
File picture: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

NEWS that uptake of routine breast screening in Scotland had fallen prompted some concerns given that it’s an effective way to diagnose breast cancer early.

The official NHS figures released revealed nearly a third of eligible women in the Lothians did not attend routine breast X-rays between 2012 and 2015, the worst figures for the area since records began in 2006.

On the balance of the evidence, Cancer Research UK believes the screening programme is a valuable tool in preventing breast cancer deaths. But no screening technique is perfect.

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While breast screening reduces deaths from the disease it also has downsides such as missing some cancers, and can also cause some women to be over-diagnosed.

It could be, for example, that screening could find a slow-growing cancer that would never have caused a problem during a woman’s lifetime – something which could lead to unnecessary treatment.

And it is not yet possible to tell which cancers will develop into harmful disease and which will not.

This is why it is vital that women are given balanced information based on all the available evidence about the potential harms and benefits of screening.

This information needs to be easy to understand and readily available.

Cancer Research UK believes that GP practices have an important role to play in supporting women to make an informed decision about whether or not to take up their screening invitation.

The reasons why women do not attend for screening are complex.

We know that people living in more deprived communities are much less likely to go for screening and action is needed to make sure women who want to attend breast screening aren’t missing out.

An independent review commissioned by Cancer Research UK estimated that the breast screening programme reduced deaths from breast cancer by about 20 per cent in women invited to screening in the UK.

This is a reduction of around 1300 breast cancer deaths a year. However, for every life that is saved by screening, around three women will be over-diagnosed with a cancer that would never have gone on to harm them.

Rest assured, most women who attend breast screening will have a normal result.

Around four out of 100 women will be asked to come back for more tests, but this does not mean that a woman has breast cancer, it just means that the doctors want to take a closer look.

Only around one in five women who are asked to come back actually go on to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

It is important women visit their doctor if they notice any unusual or persistent changes, even if they regularly attend screening and have had a normal result in the past.

Getting to know your body can help you spot any changes that aren’t normal for you or which don’t go away.

• Gregor McNie is Cancer Research UK’s senior public affairs manager in Scotland