Cancer Council is encouraging more Australian women aged 50 to 74 to consider participating in the free BreastScreen program, following a major new international data analysis that showed the lifesaving benefits of mammography screening outweighed the harms of over-diagnosis at a population level.

Cancer Council welcomed the new analysis of major studies conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, which concluded that screening mammography delivered a net public health benefit.

Chair of Cancer Council Australia’s Screening and Immunisation Committee, Associate Professor Karen Canfell, says that while the lifesaving benefits of mammography have been well-documented, there has been an ongoing debate about the harms of false-positive screening results and over-treatment.

“The analysis of data from about 20 cohort and 20 case–control studies conducted in Australia, Europe and North America showed a mortality benefit of around 40% for women aged 50 to 69 who underwent mammography screening,” A/Prof Canfell says.

“There was also evidence of the mortality benefit extending to women aged 70 to 74 years.

“These finding confirm the role of breast cancer screening in saving lives. Applied to Australia, it is clear that a substantial number of Australian women are alive today because an early-stage breast cancer was detected through the BreastScreen Australia program.”

A/Prof Canfell says one of the challenges of mammography screening is that some women would be diagnosed with, and treated for, breast cancers that would not have caused them harm.

“Our view is that the significant lifesaving benefits of mammography, when balanced against the risks of over-diagnosis and over-treatment, support the need for BreastScreen Australia and the case for increased participation in the program,” she says.

“The analysis published today, by the world’s most senior cancer researchers, supports our position and further highlights the benefits of two-yearly screening mammography for women aged 50 to 74.

“No screening program is perfect, and there are risks as well as benefits. So it is important that women are informed of the benefits and the risks before agreeing to participate in the program.”

A/Prof Canfell says only around 55% of eligible Australian women currently participate in the BreastScreen Australia program and that many more lives could be saved if more eligible women underwent their free biennial mammogram.

“More screening would result in the detection of more early-stage breast cancers and the application of lifesaving early treatment interventions,” she says.