Tip sheet offers overview of breast cancer screening and overdiagnosis issues

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

Photo: Thirteen Of Clubs via Flickr

Photo: Thirteen Of Clubs via Flickr

With the recent announcement of the American Cancer Society’s change in mammography and breast cancer screening guidelines, the question of when women should get screened is back in the spotlight. The issue is far from simple, as I learned when reporting on it last month for Cure Magazine, before the society’s change was announced.

As one researcher told me then, the goal of screening is to find a tumor that otherwise would not have been found – and find it early enough to undertake treatment that will save the patient’s life. Yet many other outcomes can also result from screening, ranging from false positives that can cause an intense (but hopefully brief) period of anxiety to identifying a non-invasive cancer that is treated with mastectomy, radiation or chemotherapy even if it never would have caused the woman harm.

The research is clear that mammograms do save women’s lives, but the actual number is in doubt among researchers. The research is also clear that breast cancer, for example, is over-diagnosed and over-treated – and those numbers also are up for debate. That makes it difficult for women to know what to do and difficult for journalists to know how to report on the issue.

In this new tip sheet, freelance writer Bonny McClain offers a primer on the issue of overdiagnosis and overtreatment, based on her attendance at the Preventing Overdiagnosis conference in September. For journalists new to the issue and trying to wrap their heads around why overdiagnosis occurs and what to keep in mind when reporting on screening, her tips provide an excellent overview of an incredibly complex issue.

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