BACKGROUND: In an earlier publication, our evaluation of data from breast cancer screening programs in seven Swedish counties suggested a 40% reduction in incidence-based breast cancer mortality among women actually screened. In the current study, we expand the previous analysis from seven counties to 13 large areas within nine counties, including six of the original counties and seven additional areas, examine a longer period of follow-up (20-44 years), apply new analytic methods for the evaluation of incidence-based breast cancer mortality, and estimate the number needed to screen to save one life.
METHODS: Data from six of the original counties (one being excluded as it does not yet have 10 years of follow-up after the initiation of screening), with increased follow-up, and seven additional large areas, within three counties, representing approximately 45% of Swedish women, provide information about age at diagnosis, age at death, and screening history for 542,187 women in the prescreening and 566,423 women in the screening epochs. Regardless of year of diagnosis, there were a total of 6,231 deaths due to breast cancer in the period of study as a whole. Of these, 4,778 were incidence-based deaths in the two epochs, i.e., death among cases diagnosed within either the prescreening or screening period. Data were analyzed using Poisson regression and adjusted, when necessary, for self-selection bias, contemporaneous changes in incidence, and changes in mortality independent of screening.
RESULTS: Attendance was uniformly high, averaging 75% in the screening epochs. Recall rates for assessment varied from 4% to 5% at the first round of screening and approximately 3% at later rounds. Detection rates averaged five breast cancers per 1,000 women screened in the first round, and four breast cancers per 1,000 women screened in subsequent rounds. There was a significant 45% reduction in incidence-based breast cancer mortality among screened women in the screening epoch relative to incidence-based breast cancer mortality in the prescreening epoch (relative risk, 0.55; 95% confidence intervals, 0.51-0.59). After adjusting for self-selection bias, there still was a significant 43% reduction in incidence-based breast cancer mortality associated with screening (relative risk, 0.57; 95% confidence intervals, 0.53-0.62).
CONCLUSIONS: These results indicate a reduction in breast cancer mortality of between 40% and 45% in association with screening, after adjustment for self-selection bias. These results were obtained with modest human costs: the number needed to screen to save one life was estimated as 472.