If we can see it, we can treat it
Breast Cancer Every year, over two million women have breast screening in the UK, and 15,500 have their cancer detected through it. This saves an estimated 1,300 lives annually.
“The advantage of screening is that it can pick up small cancers that cannot be felt by hand, when they are still confined to the breast and therefore easier to treat,” explains Dr Rachael Currie, a consultant radiologist at Royal Devon and Exeter Foundation Trust.
Indeed, the latest Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) report for England shows that nearly 40 per cent of the women whose breast cancer was diagnosed following screening, in 2013-14, had tumours smaller than 15mm, which are unlikely to be found during a physical examination.
Mammography is the standard of screening. It uses X-rays taken from two angles to create a flat image of the breast. An advanced technique, called digital tomosynthesis, has been developed, which takes multiple X-rays from several angles, effectively creating a three-dimensional image. As Dr Curries notes, the technique, currently available for research purposes, reduces the risk of false positives, a limitation of mammography, which can result in unnecessary biopsies and treatment.
As part of the NHS breast screening programme, women aged 50 to 70 are invited for a mammogram every three years. Younger women at high risk of breast cancer, for example because they have a faulty gene such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, are offered an annual MRI scan.
The problem is that not all eligible women attend their appointments. Fewer than three-quarters of those aged 50 to 70 do so, according to the HSCIC report. Worse still, the figure has steadily decreased in the last three years, from 73.1 to 72.1 per cent.
Dr Currie concludes: “It’s important that women have their screening, for everything we can detect early lowers their need for aggressive treatment and improves their chances of survival. It’s an all-around benefit.”