Breast Cancer 'Overdiagnosed' in More Than 1 Million Women

Breast cancer is close to home for many women.  Most know friends, family or co-workers who have suffered from the disease and it's brutal treatments.  But did these women really need to be cured of their breast cancer?

A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that 1.3 million women over the age of 40 have been overdiagnosed with breast cancer in the past 30 years.  That is, they have been diagnosed and treated for cancer which never would have caused symptoms or resulted in death during their lifetime.  In 2008 alone, researchers estimate that 70,000 women were overdiagnosed accounting for over 30% of all breast cancer diagnoses that year.  

The study has generated intense controversy among the medical community.  The American College of Radiology and the Society of Breast Imaging boldly stated "The thesis by Blyer and Welch is simply wrong", they argue that if too many subscribe to the findings of this study and screening guidelines for breast cancer are changed lives could be lost.  Therese Bevers, MD of the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston agrees that breast cancer is overdiagnosed but suspects overdiagnosis occurs at a much more modest rate, about 10%.

How will the findings of this study affect nurse practitioners?  More research needs to be done before the screening guidelines we currently employ for breast cancer are changed.  Oncologists can't yet determine which cancers will progress to become significant and which will remain small or slow growing and impart no impact on patient's lives.  Given this information, most patients and providers will continue to opt for treatment of all discovered breast tumors. 

As a nurse practitioner, you should inform your female patients of this study.  Patients in poor health or who are elderly may elect to forgo screening mammograms if they are not likely to treat a breast tumor or have other, more complicated health issues.