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J Am Board Fam Med. 2010 Nov-Dec;23(6):775-82. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2010.06.100065.

Promoting screening mammography: insight or uptake?

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  • 1Department of Radiology, Cook County John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, Chicago, IL 60612-9985, USA.


The US Preventive Services Task Force has emphasized individualized decision-making regarding participation in screening mammography for women ages 40 to 49. Positive public opinion regarding screening mammography is understandable given that screening advocates have heavily promoted the slogan "early detection saves lives" while ignoring screening harms. The goal of mammography screening advocates is to increase screening participation or uptake. The purpose of this paper is to promote physician and patient insight by presenting the age-related benefit and harms of screening. At age 50, routine screening saves approximately 1 woman per 1000 over 10 years. The life-saving proportion of screen-detected cancers is 5%, which means mammograms must detect 21 cancers to save one life. Almost half of screen-detected cancers represent pseudo-disease and would never become symptomatic yet alone lethal during a woman's lifetime. Consequently, 40- and 50-year-old women are 10 times more likely to experience overdiagnosis and overtreatment than to have their lives saved. Analysis of events and outcomes per single screening round for women ages 40 to 49 show that approximately 9600 screening mammograms, 960 diagnostic exams, and 90 to 140 biopsies are required to save one life. Given the substantial harms of screening, advocates should refocus their priority from promoting uptake to promoting insight.

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