Thousands of elderly women will now go through unnecessary surgery due to the breast cancer screening scandal, experts warned last night.
“Catch up” mammograms carried out a decade late are expected to detect cancers that will not cause harm in up to 5,000 women by October this year.
Jeremy Hunt has apologised for Britain’s biggest ever cancer scandal telling Parliament up to 270 women may have died because of an IT error.
It meant 450,000 breast cancer patients were not invited for their final screening since 2009.
The 309,000 women still alive will be offered the catch up scan in letters sent out this month.
NHS guidance suggests that for every life saved by screening due to early diagnosis, three women will be overdiagnosed. Rates overdiagnosed are thought to increase with age.
Some of the country’s leading cancer specialists insist it is “crazy’ to test the women – now aged 70 to 79 – pressuring many to undergo invasive treatment for tumours which would likely turn out harmless.
Medics are braced for thousands of women having unnecessary mastectomies and undergoing drastic radiation and hormone therapy.
One of the architects of Britain’s breast cancer screening programme say the plan will destroy the quality of life of around 5,000 women which, latest data suggests, will be overdiagnosed.
University College London’s Professor Michael Baum labelled the catch up tests a “face saving exercise”.
He told the Mirror: “This hysteria being whipped up is cruel. Those diagnosed will almost certainly have surgery, radiotherapy and sometimes hormone therapy.
“Dying from breast cancer at that age is very rare and 97% of women will die from other causes such as cardiovascular disease, dementia or stroke.”
Over diagnosis is a problem with many screening programmes as it can be impossible to know whether some tumours are dangerous or likely to grow.
Charities insist the UK’s breast screening programme – which invites women aged 50 to 70 for an X-ray every three years – saves 1,300 lives a year.
Another of the UK’s leading cancer specialists has warned panic over missed breast cancer screening will cause elderly women to have unnecessary surgery.
Prof Paul Pharoah, lead cancer epidemiology specialist at Cambridge University, said: “There’s absolutely no evidence that this ‘catch up’ screening will do any good.
“If someone will have gone 10 years without having a mammogram the idea that she will have one now she is nearly 80 is mad.
“If that’s beneficial why isn’t the NHS offering all 80-year-old mammograms. It’s entirely a political gesture that doesn’t make public health sense.
“Of course people will err on the side of caution and think ‘I’m going to have this treated’. I’m sure they will.
“The best data we have suggests for every breast cancer death prevented by screening three women will be over diagnosed. Cancer in older people tends to be less aggressive and we see slower growing tumours.
“But having a mastectomy can have a huge detrimental effect on their quality of life and we know radiotherapy results in people more likely to die from heart disease.
“In many cases the cancer diagnosed will never be a problem for them and they would have died from something else first.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has launched an independent review after he revealed a computer error dating back to 2009 meant many women aged 68 to 71 in England were not invited to their final routine screening.
Computer modelling suggests that between 135 and 270 women could “have had their lives shortened” as a result.
Prof Baum has dedicated his life to studying breast cancer in women but is now opposed to screening healthy women as he says the harms far outweigh any benefits.
He added: “We know latest research from the US shows half of people told they have cancer are over diagnosed. These women then have the stigma of having cancer and are subjected to onerous treatment.
“If a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer she will almost certainly have surgery, radiotherapy and it’s highly likely she will have hormone therapy.”
Surgery can include removal of both breasts, a single breast or part of the breast tissue.
Dr Amitava Banerjee, expert in clinical data science at University College London, said: “Breast cancer screening, as it exists, is an imperfect tool for public health.
“At the population level, for a relatively small gain, there is a significant risk of over diagnosis and over treatment.
“Many women feel that the uncertainties of breast cancer screening have not been communicated to them.”
The routine NHS breast screening programme invites more than 2.5 million women every year for a test. Around 2 million women take up the offer.
Of those affected by the scandal, those over 72 will receive letters suggesting they call a helpline to discuss their options first.
A Public Health England (PHE) spokeswoman said: “We are inviting all affected women aged 70-72 for a breast cancer screen.
“Those women older than 72 who are affected will have the opportunity to talk to a clinician about the benefits of being screened, based on their individual circumstances.”
The PHE helpline for those affected is 0800 169 2692.
- Are you or a relative one of the 450,000 women who did not receive their screening invite? Email email@example.com or call 0207 293 3242 to tell your story.
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