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Breast cancer screening - how beneficial is it?

March 2010


A study by the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen, published in the British Medical Journal (24 March), suggests that national breast screening programs provide no benefit in terms of lives saved.

The Danish study claims that routine breast cancer screening may have little effect on reducing deaths from the disease, and the value of national programs should be questioned.

The study is based on analysis of data over a 20 year period covering the introduction of regional screening in Denmark, and found that breast cancer mortality fell by one per cent per annum in the screened areas and two per cent per annum in non-screened areas.

Cancer Council comment

The Danish study is based on modelling, and therefore contains statistical assumptions. 

While the Danish study will spark debate amongst experts, a recent evaluation of Australia’s breast cancer screening program has found that free mammograms have reduced mortality from breast cancer among women in the target age group of 50–69 years by 21–28%.*

The Australian evaluation covers a similar period to the Danish study.

The evaluation recommended Australia should continue to provide free breast cancer screening using mammography every two years for women aged 50-69 years.

However, the target program participation rate of 70% for women in this age group has not been met, with participation rates steady at 56% over the last few years. Cancer Council strongly supports measures to lift the participation rate for women in this group - where evidence indicates the greatest potential mortality benefit (ie. lives saved).

The evaluation report also suggested that the target age group be extended to women aged 45-49 years and 70-74 years, where there was some evidence that screening may achieve a mortality benefit. However, it recommended that women aged 40-44 years and 75 years and over should no longer be eligible for the program, as there was limited evidence of any mortality benefit from screening for women in these age groups. Women aged 40-44 years and 75 years and over are better supported though an individualised approach to risk assessment and monitoring.

Cancer Council supports the BreastScreen Evaluation Report’s recommendations which aim to focus resources on screening policies to achieve the best mortality and morbidity outcomes for women.

* The BreastScreen Evaluation Report was completed by a committee comprised of Australian and international experts, and state and territory and consumer representatives. The committee was chaired by Dr Helen Zorbas, Director, National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre.  It was published  September 2009.


Cancer Council CEO Professor Ian Olver addresses breast cancer screening concerns on Channel 9, 24 March 2010.


This page was last updated on: Friday, June 14, 2013