Breast cancer can kill you. This simple fact means that screening is eminently sensible - a message which has been driven home to most women. But what happens to the 7,000 women out of the 1.7 million screened who are misdiagnosed? The Cochrane Center in Copenhagen has published a report revealing severe overdiagnosis in the NHS breast cancer screening scheme, resulting in healthy women being told they have cancer when in fact they don't.
This problem isn't easily solvable. Doctors looking at mammograms—the standard scan for breast cancer—are currently unable to differentiate between invasive, cancerous lesions around the milk duct, and benign lesions. These lesions, also known as ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) have a very small chance of developing into invasive cancer, though mostly lie dormant and rarely cause the slightest of symptoms. To date, it remains impossible for doctors to discover when or whether DCIS will turn out to be cancerous.
The Cochrane Report and former NHS patients have criticised the government for not being informative enough when it comes to DCIS. Shockingly, of women who had a mastectomy after being advised to do so when diagnosed with DCIS, many later found out there was no need for it. Many of them say they would have opted for a ‘wait-and-watch’ tact had they known that was an option. The lack of knowledge and information concerning DCIS is causing many women to undergo treatment for invasive breast cancer—often an unnecessary pre-emptive strike.
This uncertainty has countless associated problems. Not only do these misdiagnosed women undergo chemotherapy and other treatments which pose a direct health threat, but the psychological trauma of the ordeal is equally gruelling. The personal stress and anxiety that accompanies a possible death sentence no doubt has a devastating effect on everyday-life. Then there are the social costs in the form of medical expenses and working hours.
There is clearly an imminent need for medical research to reach the next level in the case of DCIS. The government must focus on the importance of spreading information to women who choose to take up the NHS offer of free screening. It is a matter of respecting the individual's freedom of choice, which can only be done through knowledge.
If diagnosed with breast cancer, options like chemotherapy and a mastectomy might save someone's life. The same medical options, however, seem like grotesque hardships should the diagnosis prove false. The facts are cruel, but simple: due to a lack of medical advancement in the field of DCIS, healthy women are being pumped with poison and having their breasts cut off. With all the money and expertise going into cancer research every year, one can only hope that a way of distinguishing benign lesions in the breasts from malignant ones becomes available sooner rather than later.
Marthe Lamp Sandvik is Comment Editor of The Journal.