1 in 3 Women With Breast Cancer Treated Unnecessarily

Kaiser Health News, January 10, 2017

New study raises the possibility that some women who believe their lives were saved by mammograms were actually harmed by cancer screenings that led to treatment they didn’t need, says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society

New study raises the possibility that some women who believe their lives were saved by mammograms were actually harmed by cancer screenings that led to treatment they didn't need, says Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society.

This article first appeared January 9, 2017 on Kaiser Health News.

By Liz Szabo

One in three women with breast cancer detected by a mammogram is treated unnecessarily, because screening tests found tumors that are so slow-growing that they're essentially harmless, according to a Danish study published Monday in Annals of Internal Medicine, which has renewed debate over the value of early detection.

The study raises the uncomfortable possibility that some women who believe their lives were saved by mammograms were actually harmed by cancer screenings that led to surgery, radiation and even chemotherapy that they didn't need, said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, who wrote an accompanying editorial but was not involved in the study.

Researchers increasingly recognize that not all breast cancers pose the same risk, even if they look the same under a microscope, Brawley said. While some early tumors turn into deadly monsters, others stop growing or even shrink. But assuming that all small breast lesions have the potential to turn deadly is akin to "racial profiling," Brawley wrote in his editorial.

"By treating all the cancers that we see, we are clearly saving some lives" Brawley said in an interview. "But we're also 'curing' some women who don't need to be cured."

Although experts such as Brawley have long discussed the risks posed by "overdiagnosis," relatively few women who undergo cancer screenings are even aware of the debate.

Kaiser Health News

Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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