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Breast cancer screening for women in their 40s ‘could save up to 400 lives a year’

Emily Goddard

Screening women for breast cancer in their 40s rather than in their 50s could save as many as 400 lives a year, a UK study has found.

The research, led by Queen Mary University of London, is based on data from 160,000 women who were followed up for 23 years.

The study, published in the journal Lancet Oncology, found that screening women aged 40-49 reduced breast cancer deaths by a quarter in the first 10 years.

There were 83 deaths in the group of 53,883 women who were checked in their 40s, compared with 219 deaths among the 106,953 who were screened from 50.

But no significant reduction in deaths was observed thereafter.

Lead researcher Stephen Duffy, from Queen Mary University of London, said lives could be saved by lowering the age at which screening is offered – currently every three years between the ages of 50 and 70.

The researchers suggested somewhere between 300 and 400 lives would be saved every year if the screening age was lowered and there was a 70 per cent uptake.

Prof Duffy added: “We now screen more thoroughly and with better equipment than in the 1990s when most of the screening in this trial took place, so the benefits may be greater than we’ve seen in this study.”

There is some uncertainty over whether earlier screening might lead to over-diagnosis of breast cancer because it can detect harmless cancers, exposing patients to unnecessary distress and the potential side-effects of treatment.

The study found a “modest” over-diagnosis within the 40-49 age group, similar to that found in the over-50s programme, according to the researchers.

Commenting on the research, Shirley Hodgson, a professor of cancer genetics at St George’s, University of London, said the research shows “little evidence for over-diagnosis”.

She added that “the clear implication from this study is that screening from 40 years does appear to save lives from breast cancer, particularly early stage (1 and 2) breast cancer.”

However, Cancer Research UK cautioned that it was unclear whether “reducing the breast screening age would give any additional benefit over the existing programme”.

Sophia Lowes, the health information manager at the charity, said: “Although of high quality, this study alone isn’t enough to call for a reduction in the screening age and further investigation of the balance of benefits and harms is needed.

“Compared to the existing screening programme, in the younger age group, six times more women would need to be screened to save one life.

“Many women received false-positive results and some women would have been overdiagnosed with cancers that would never have gone on to cause them harm.”

Around one in eight women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

If detected early enough, the disease can be treated and recovery chances are good.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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