Earlier breast cancer screening could save lives, researchers find

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Screening women in their forties for breast cancer could save hundreds of lives each year and would not lead to “overdiagnosis” of the disease.

New analysis of the outcomes of the UK Breast Screening Age Trial, which was carried out between 1990 and 1997 and involved earlier breast screening for women aged 39-41, revealed that hundreds of years of life had been saved.

The 160,000 women who took part in the study received either annual mammography or the usual NHS breast screening programme, which takes place every three years from the age of 50.

In the 23-year follow-up analysis, which was carried out by Queen Mary University of London, it was observed that screening women aged 40-49 led to a 25% reduction in breast cancer mortality in the first 10 years.

The total years of life saved by earlier screening was estimated at 620 – 11.5 years saved per 1,000 women invited to earlier screening.

The study, published in The Lancet Oncology journal, found that earlier screening did not appear to add to “overdiagnosed” cases from screening at age 50 years and older.

Lead researcher Professor Stephen Duffy said: “This is a very long term follow-up of a study which confirms that screening in women under 50 can save lives. The benefit is seen mostly in the first ten years, but the reduction in mortality persists in the long term at about one life saved per thousand women screened.

“We now screen more thoroughly and with better equipment than in the 1990s when most of the screening in this trial took place, so the benefits may be greater than we’ve seen in this study.”

Another study has also identified the signs, symptoms and blood test results that would help swift diagnosis of cancer in people with unexpected weight loss.

Researchers from the University of Oxford and University of Exeter Medical School examined the patient records of 63,973 adults who visited their GP with unexpected weight loss over a two-year period. Their records were linked with a national cancer registry to work out how many were later diagnosed with cancer and what type.

Some 1.4% received a cancer diagnosis within six months of seeing their GP.

Symptoms that were associated with a cancer diagnosis in patients with unexpected weight loss included abdominal pain, appetite loss, iron deficiency anaemia, jaundice and enlarged lymph nodes.

Professor Paul Aveyard, professor of Behavioural Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: “GPs face a dilemma when faced with a patient who may have cancer but whose symptoms are not enough to justify further investigation immediately and which don’t point to a specific type of cancer. This study lets us define some key signs and symptoms to help GP’s home in on the right course of action much quicker – which should improve patient outcomes.”

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