The Dual Realities of Breast Cancer Screening

More and more studies are telling us that breast cancer screens lead to unnecessary treatment. I think it all boils down to your focal point, population vs. individual. Medical recommendations based upon population-level outcomes differ from those based upon individual outcomes. The numbers tell us that the screening often does more damage than good. According to the latest study in the news, one death from breast cancer is prevented for every 2,500 women screened, while 6-10 women are over-diagnosed, likely undergoing unnecessary, health-damaging treatments as a result. With those numbers in mind, should we be pushing breast cancer screening to the degree we do? Now imagine that one life saved by screening is your’s, your partner’s, your mother’s, or your daughter’s life. Now how would you answer that question?

So long as our understanding of cancers is so inadequate, so long as breast cancer continues to prematurely end so many lives and maim so many women’s bodies, is over-diagnosis followed by life preferable to a missed diagnosis followed by the threat of death? Who decides? Individuals, doctors who treat individuals, researchers who study populations? Researchers are individuals too, presumably subject to the same odds of developing breast cancer and the same odds of over-diagnosis.

While I understand the position of those looking at breast cancer from afar, those researchers and statisticians trained to focus in on the numbers, I have a better understanding of the individual behind that number 1 in 2,500. She is my mother, my sisters, and far too many of my friends. Until that 1 in 2,500 is just a number, a number that very few of us can attach to an individual loved one, recommendations that we postpone and reduce screening will be hard to swallow.

If you haven’t been following such stories, here’s the latest:

What do you think about the many recent studies highlighting the inadequacy of current breast cancer screening methods and their associated recommendations to postpone and reduce the frequency of screening?

Susan Beausang,


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