Breast cancer screening – why it matters

Like other types of cancer, incidence of breast cancer is increasing, with around 50,000 new cases in the UK per annum. That means there is currently a lifetime risk of one in eight, which is predicted to rise to one in seven by 2024.

In spite of this, breast cancer can be considered a success story, asGordon Wishart, Professor of Cancer Surgery and Medical Director of Check4Cancer, explains: “While the incidence has been rising, the mortality rate for breast cancer has actually been falling since the 1980s. In fact, 2012 figures showed a fall of 45% for women aged 50-64 since 1989 – the year after the breast screening programme began. It demonstrates very clearly that investment in fighting cancer really can have a significant effect through cancer awareness and early detection.”

As with all forms of cancer, being able to recognise it and catch it early is key to survival. The national screening for cervical cancer – another positive story – began around the same time as for breast cancer, and within six years had reduced the number of cases of cervical cancer by two thirds, saving an estimated 100,000 lives between 1988 and 2012. “We could do better still with both cancers,” comments Prof Wishart, “but the key is ensuring that as many women as possible attend screenings, and, where possible, that those in higher risk groups are screened younger”.

Comparing statistics for breast cancer with those of lung cancer – for which there is no screening programme – provides a stark demonstration of the impact of early detection. Lung cancer is the second most common cancer in the UK after breast cancer, but the biggest killer; 90% of cases come to light as a result of symptoms such as weight loss, or coughing up blood by which time it is already too late for effective treatment.

“43,463 new cases of lung cancer were diagnosed in UK in 2011 – a slightly lower incidence than breast cancer – but the number of deaths is huge. There were 11,716 deaths from breast cancer in the UK in 2012, but 35,400 from lung cancer. If lung cancer were screened as effectively as breast cancer, we could expect to see the number of deaths reduced by as much as two thirds.”

Early diagnosis of all cancers would relieve a huge cost burden for the UK – as much as £210 million – and would help to improve the chances of survival for over 52,000 patients. Currently, this is beyond the capacity of the NHS, and Prof Wishart believes that employers must step up to the plate.

“This is what we set up Check4Cancer to do, and a great example of an employer who embraced this approach is Hewlett Packard, who, over a period of several years, commissioned Check4Cancer to run workplace-based cancer awareness and early detection programmes for four of the most common cancers – breast, prostate, skin and lung cancer.” The first of these campaigns – the Power of Pink breast cancer campaign – resulted in over 10,000 appointments in UK, Scandinavia and USA, and detected at least 65 cancers. “This shows that even with a successful national screening programme in place, there is more we can and should do.”

What it means for individuals can be summed up in the words of one HP employee who was diagnosed: “Could you pass on my thanks to the breast nurse who examined me. If it wasn't for her, it may not have been detected for a very long time.”