Breast Cancer—Risks & Benefits, Age 50–69

“Should I be screened with mammography for breast cancer?”

For women between 50 and 69 years of age:

  • Among women who do not screen, the risk of dying from breast cancer is: 1 in 155
  • With regular screening your risk of dying of breast cancer is: 1 in 196

However, with regular screening:

  • …your risk of having a false positive mammogram requiring further screening is: 1 in 4
  • …you risk of having a biopsy is: 1 in 28
  • …your risk of having part or all of a breast removed unnecessarily is: 1 in 200

Be informed!

Risk

A graph showing the absolute benefit, which is the difference between the absolute risk without and the absolute risk with screening. Screening reduces risk by 0.13%.

You may hear the risks or benefits of breast cancer screening described as either absolute or relative. But what does all this mean and how does it apply to you?

The main difference is that absolute risk takes into consideration the fact that whether or not you get screened or treated, you still have a baseline risk of dying of breast cancer: 1 in 155 or 0.64%. With regular screening that risk changes to: 1 in 196 or about 0.51%. Relative risk does not consider baseline risk in the same way and may lead to confusion about how regular screening reduces risk.

The absolute risk is simply the difference in risk between regular screening (0.51%) and no screening (0.64%): 0.64% − 0.51% = 0.13%

Therefore screening in women aged 50–69 reduces your absolute risk of dying of breast cancer by 0.13%. So the absolute benefit of screening is 0.13%.

Relative risk only looks at the reduction of risk as a proportion of the total risk (so it doesn’t consider that you are already at risk of cancer, this can lead to larger values than absolute risk): 0.13% ÷ 0.64% = 21%

Thus, screening in women aged 50–69 reduces your relative risk of dying of breast cancer by 21%. So the relative benefit of screening is 21%.

So how does this translate into actual numbers?

Among 100,000 women aged 50 to 69 who are screened every 2 years for 11 years:

  • 510 would die of breast cancer
  • 28,200 would experience a false alarm
  • 3,700 would have a biopsy
  • 500 would have part or all of a breast removed without having cancer
  • 138 would escape a breast cancer death

Among 100,000 women aged 50 to 69 who are not screened for 11 years:

  • 640 would die of breast cancer
  • 99,360 would not

Absolute benefit of screening with mammography

If we screened 720 women, aged 50–69 years, at average risk of breast cancer every two years for 11 years…

A graphic showing 720 dots, each one representing a woman. The dots are coloured differently to show the outcome for each woman.
  • …about 204 women would experience a false positive mammogram requiring further imaging
  • …26 of these women would have a biopsy, all to confirm that they do not have breast cancer
  • …at least 4 women would have part of all of a breast unnecessarily removed and bear the burden of over-diagnosis
  • …1 woman would escape a breast cancer death

If we wanted to describe the previous information in regards to the effect on an individual woman then we can look at what would occur in a base of 720 women instead of 100,000.

In the graphic above, each dot represents 1 woman ( ○ = 1 woman).