Research suggests starting breast screening at 40

A study has suggested that screening women for breast cancer from their 40s rather than their 50s could save lives without adding to the diagnosis of harmless cancers.

Published in the Lancet Oncology, the research says that lowering the screening age could save one life per 1,000 women checked. Based on 160,000 women from England, Scotland and Wales, followed up for around 23 years, the scientists say that they found a reduction in breast cancer deaths from screening women in their 40s every year over the first 10 years they were tracked.

Women in the UK between the ages of 50 and 70 are currently invited to be screened for breast cancer every three years. Women below 50 are not routinely offered this because their risk of breast cancer is generally very low and their breast tissue is more dense, making it difficult to read the results of mammography tests used to spot cancers.

This can lead to over-diagnosis - detecting very early cell changes which may not turn into problematic cancers - and the potential for exposing women to unnecessary treatment.

Discussing the research, Cancer Research UK has commented that it is still unclear if reducing the breast screening age would give any additional benefit compared to the UK's existing screening programme. The charity also calculates that six times more women in their 40s, compared to those aged 50-70, would need to be screened to save one life.

Following the coronavirus pandemic, Cancer Research UK says the priority should be getting cancer services ‘back on track’ for women aged 50-70, after disruption caused by the pandemic.

During lockdown, cancer screening programmes which detect early signs of bowel, breast and cervical cancer were paused in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, although not officially stopped in England.

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