Effect of Screening on Breast Cancer Mortality
Two population-based, observational studies from Sweden compared breast cancer mortality in the presence and absence of screening mammography programs. One study compared two adjacent time periods within 7 of the 25 counties in Sweden and concluded a statistically significant breast cancer mortality reduction of 18% to 32% due to screening. The most important bias in this study is that the advent of screening in these counties occurred over a period during which dramatic improvements were being made in the effectiveness of adjuvant breast cancer therapy. The authors do not present data on treatment received, nor do they address differences in treatment that could at least partially explain the observed reduction in breast cancer mortality. The second study considered an 11-year period and compared seven counties that had screening programs with five counties that did not. It concluded that there was a statistically nonsignificant reduction of 16% to 20% in favor of screening. The most important bias in this study was similar to that in the first study. The counties in the control group were rural. Those in the screening group included some urban areas and in general they were largely in the southern, more densely populated part of the country in comparison with the control counties. Participants were accrued over a 7-year period (about 1980-1987) during which effective adjuvant hormonal therapy and chemotherapy were being introduced. The authors do not address differences in treatment in the various geographic areas that could explain the observed reduction in breast cancer mortality.
In Nijmegen, the Netherlands, a population-based screening program was undertaken in 1975, and breast cancer mortality rates were compared with those in the neighboring town Arnhem and to all of the Netherlands. No difference in breast cancer mortality could be identified, although case-cohort studies showed that screened women have decreased mortality. One such study was performed in Nijmegen itself, with an odds ratio of 0.48, for screened versus unscreened women. Explanations for the lack of demonstrable benefit include earlier diagnosis of breast cancer in the general population (due to increased public awareness) and documented trends for the diagnosis of cancers with favorable prognostic indicators. Furthermore, adjuvant systemic therapy decreases breast cancer mortality, and its use may decrease the impact of early detection.
A community-based case-control study of screening as practiced in excellent U.S. health care systems between 1983 and 1998 found no association between previous screening and reduced breast cancer mortality. Mammography screening rates, however, were generally low.
Since 1990, there has been a sustained reduction in age-adjusted breast cancer mortality in the United States of about 2% per year. Between 1990 and 2000, the cumulative reduction was 24%. To address the contribution of screening and adjuvant therapy to this decline, the National Cancer Institute formed a consortium of seven modeling groups. These groups developed independent statistical models of female breast cancer incidence and breast cancer mortality in the United States. They used common inputs for the dissemination of screening mammography, chemotherapy, and hormonal therapy and for the benefits of treatment interventions. All seven models ascribed some benefit to both screening and adjuvant treatment, but their estimates of the relative and absolute contributions varied considerably. The estimated proportion of the total mortality reduction contributed by screening varied from 28% to 65%, with adjuvant treatment contributing the rest. The variability across models for the absolute contribution of screening was larger than it was for treatment, reflecting the greater uncertainty and higher complexity associated with estimating screening benefit.
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