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Cancer. 2002 Jan 1;94(1):37-43.

The pattern of breast cancer screening utilization and its consequences.

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Department of Pathology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.



The objective of this study was to describe the pattern of screening utilization and its consequences in terms of tumor size and time of tumor appearance of invasive breast carcinoma among a population of women who were examined at a large service screening/diagnostic program over the last decade.


Utilization of mammography was assessed from a population of 59,899 women who received 196,891 mammograms at the Massachusetts General Hospital Breast Imaging Division from January 1, 1990 to March 1, 1999, among which 604 invasive breast tumors were found. Two hundred six invasive, clinically detected tumors also were seen during this period among women who had no record of a previous mammogram. Additional information was available on screening of women from March 1, 1999 to June 1, 2001.


Fifty percent of the women who used screening did not begin until the age of 50 years, although 25% of the invasive breast tumors were found in women age < 50 years. Relatively few of the women who used screening returned promptly for their annual examinations; by 1.5 years, only 50% had returned. Approximately 25% of the invasive breast tumors were found in women for whom there was no record of a previous screening mammogram, and these tumors were larger (median, 15 mm) than the screen-detected tumors (median, 10 mm). Approximately 30% of the 604 invasive breast tumors in the screening population were found on nonmammographic grounds, and they also were larger (median, 15 mm) than the screen-detected tumors (median, 10 mm). However, only 3% of these 604 tumors were found by nonmammographic criteria within 6 months of the previous negative examination, and only 12% were found within 1 year. By back calculating the likely size of each of these tumors at the time of the negative mammogram, it could be seen that most tumors probably emerged as larger, palpable masses not because they were missed at the previous negative mammogram, because most were too small then to have been detected, but because too much time had been allowed to pass.


Far too many women did not comply with the American Cancer Society recommendation of prompt annual screening from the age of 40 years. Consequently, almost 50% of the invasive tumors emerged as larger and, thus, potentially more lethal, palpable masses.

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