Did you guess from the title that this short piece is about the seeming inability of the British Government to run well, most things but especially IT programmes? Of course you did! Provoked by the latest National Health Service furore. In case you’ve been away with the fairies for a bit, a major cock-up in its computer system has just come to light whereby, between 2009 and 2018, it failed to invite 450,000 women between the ages of 68 and 71 for breast screening. Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt (our man usually on hand with a can of gasoline when there’s a fire), told Parliament that “there may be between 135 and 270 women who had their lives shortened”. Cue: uproar, headlines: HUNDREDS of British women have died of breast cancer (Daily Express), etc.
I’ve been reluctant to join in because I’ve said all I think is worth saying about breast cancer screening in two earlier pieces (Risk Assessment and Behind the Screen). Reading them again I thought they were a reasonable summary and I don’t think there’s anything new to add. However, this is a cancer blog and it’s a story that’s made big headlines so I feel honour-bound to offer a brief comment — in addition to sympathizing with the women and families who have been caused much distress.
My reaction was that Hunt was misguided in mentioning specific numbers — not only because he was asking for trouble from the press but mainly because the evidence that screening itself saves lives is highly questionable. For an expert view on this my Cambridge colleague David Spiegelhalter, who is Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk, has analysed the facts behind breast screening with characteristic clarity in the New Scientist.
Anything to add?
I was relieved on re-reading Risk Assessment to see that I’d given considerable coverage to the report that had just come out (2014) from The Swiss Medical Board. They’d reviewed the history of mammography screening, concluded that systematic screening might prevent about one breast cancer death for every 1000 women screened, noted that there was no evidence that overall mortality was affected and pointed out that false positive test results presented the risk of overdiagnosis.
In the USA, for example, over a 10-year course of annual screening beginning at 50 years of age, one breast-cancer death would have been prevented whilst between 490 and 670 women would have had a false positive mammogram calling for a repeat examination, 70 to 100 an unnecessary biopsy and between 3 and 14 would have been diagnosed with a cancer that would never have become a problem.
Needless to say, this landed the Swiss Big Cheeses in very hot water because there’s an awful lot of vested interests in screening and it’s sort of instinctive that it must be a good thing. But what’s great about science is that you can do experiments — here actually analysing the results of screening programmes — and quite often the results turn to be completely unexpected, as it did in this case where the bottom line was that mammography does more harm than good.
So we’re all agreed then?
Of course not. In England the NHS recommendation remains that women aged 50 to 70 are offered mammography every three years — which is just as well or we’d have Hunt explaining the recent debacle as new initiative. The American Cancer Society “strongly” recommends regular screening mammography starting at age 45 and the National Cancer Institute refers to “experts” that recommend mammography every year starting at age 25 for women with mutations in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes.
The latter is really incredible because a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 found that these mutations made the carriers much more vulnerable to radiation-induced cancer. Specifically, women with BRCA 1/2 mutations who were exposed to diagnostic radiation (i.e. mammography) before the age of 30 were twice as likely to develop breast cancer, compared to those with normal BRCA genes.
They are susceptible to radiation that would not normally be considered dangerous because the two BRCA genes encode proteins involved in the repair of damaged DNA — and if that is defective you have a recipe for cancer.
So it’s probably true that the only undisputed fact is that we need much better ways for detecting cancers at an early stage of development. The best hope at the moment seems to be the liquid biopsy approach we described in Seeing the Invisible: A Cancer Early Warning System? but that’s still a long way from solving a general cancer problem, well illustrated by breast mammography.