Researchers suggest improved patient care, not screening, responsible for drops in breast cancer mortality

Breast cancer mortality is on the decline, but can that drop be attributed to improved screening policies? According to the team behind a new study published in International Journal of Cancer, better treatment—not screening—is responsible for the shift.

The authors followed Norwegian women between the ages of 30 and 89, tracking breast cancer diagnoses among the group from 1987 to 2010. They determined that Norway’s breast cancer screening program is not the reason for the improvements in breast cancer mortality.

“The important result is that we do not find a beneficial effect of breast cancer screening any longer,” co-author Henrik Støvring of Aarhus University in Aarhus, Denmark, said in a prepared statement. “The original randomized trials examining breast cancer screening were conducted way back in the 1980s, and they showed an effect, but the fact is that the better the treatment methods become, the less benefit screening has.”

The belief that breast cancer patients who undergo screening live longer, Støvring added, is not accurate.  

“The women who are invited to screening live longer because all breast cancer patients live longer, and they do so because we now have better drugs and more effective chemotherapy, and because we have cancer care pathways, which means the healthcare system reacts faster than it did a decade ago,” he said in the same statement. “But it does not appear that fewer women die of breast cancer as a result of mammography screening.”

Should this research make countries reconsider their screening policies? According to Støvring, it’s not his decision to make—but he does suggest that it would be “beneficial” to consider starting that conversation.

Of course, organizations throughout the United States—and the world, for that matter—still recommend regular screening for breast cancer. And back in 2017, a report from the National Cancer Institute found that breast cancer deaths in the U.S. have dropped 40 percent since 1990.

“Regular mammography screening and improved therapies are undoubtedly responsible for the decline in breast cancer deaths,” the ACR said at the time in a statement. “Mammography can detect cancer early when it’s most treatable and can be treated less invasively. This also helps preserve quality of life.”