The dogma has been that screening finds cancer early, when it’s most curable. But screening is only worthwhile if it finds cancers destined to cause death, and if treating them early improves survival versus treating when or if they cause symptoms.
Mammograms also are an imperfect screening tool — they often give false alarms, spurring biopsies and other tests that ultimately show no cancer was present. The new study looks at a different risk: Overdiagnosis, or finding cancer that is present but does not need treatment.
Researchers used federal surveys on mammography and cancer registry statistics from 1976 through 2008 to track how many cancers were found early, while still confined to the breast, versus later, when they had spread to lymph nodes or more widely.
The scientists assumed that the actual amount of disease — how many true cases exist — did not change or grew only a little during those three decades. Yet they found a big difference in the number and stage of cases discovered over time, as mammograms came into wide use.
Mammograms more than doubled the number of early-stage cancers detected — from 112 to 234 cases per 100,000 women. But late-stage cancers dropped just 8 percent, from 102 to 94 cases per 100,000 women.
The imbalance suggests a lot of overdiagnosis from mammograms, which now account for 60 percent of cases that are found, Bleyer said. If screening were working, there should be one less patient diagnosed with late-stage cancer for every additional patient whose cancer was found at an earlier stage, he explained.
“Instead, we’re diagnosing a lot of something else — not cancer” in that early stage, Bleyer said. “And the worst cancer is still going on, just like it always was.”
Researchers also looked at death rates for breast cancer, which declined 28 percent during that time in women 40 and older — the group targeted for screening. Mortality dropped even more — 41 percent — in women under 40, who presumably were not getting mammograms.