Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths among US women. Mammography screening may be associated with reduced breast cancer mortality but can also cause harm. Guidelines recommend individualizing screening decisions, particularly for younger women.
We reviewed the evidence on the mortality benefit and chief harms of mammography screening and what is known about how to individualize mammography screening decisions, including communicating risks and benefits to patients.
We searched MEDLINE from 1960-2014 to describe (1) benefits of mammography, (2) harms of mammography, and (3) individualizing screening decisions and promoting informed decision making. We also manually searched reference lists of key articles retrieved, selected reviews, meta-analyses, and practice recommendations. We rated the level of evidence using the American Heart Association guidelines.
Mammography screening is associated with a 19% overall reduction of breast cancer mortality (approximately 15% for women in their 40s and 32% for women in their 60s). For a 40- or 50-year-old woman undergoing 10 years of annual mammograms, the cumulative risk of a false-positive result is about 61%. About 19% of the cancers diagnosed during that 10-year period would not have become clinically apparent without screening (overdiagnosis), although there is uncertainty about this estimate. The net benefit of screening depends greatly on baseline breast cancer risk, which should be incorporated into screening decisions. Decision aids have the potential to help patients integrate information about risks and benefits with their own values and priorities, although they are not yet widely available for use in clinical practice.
Conclusions and Relevance
To maximize the benefit of mammography screening, decisions should be individualized based on patients’ risk profiles and preferences. Risk models and decision aids are useful tools, but more research is needed to optimize these and to further quantify overdiagnosis. Research should also explore other breast cancer screening strategies.