Project details

Researcher: Professor David French

Location: University of Manchester

Project title: Understand if we can safely offer women at low risk of breast cancer less frequent screening appointments

Key area: Risk and Prevention

The challenge

Breast cancer screening helps to detect cancer early, when it’s easier to treat and offer women higher chances of survival. However, screening can also sometimes give false positive results and detect tumours that would not otherwise cause any harm, leading to overtreatment. In women who overall are at low risk of developing breast cancer, harmless tumours are more commonly detected than aggressive cancers. 

Being able to estimate a woman’s personal chance of developing breast cancer and offer the most suitable screening schedule, would not only help to detect breast cancer earlier in those at higher risk, but would also allow women at lower risk avoid over-treatment. Offering women who have a very low chance of developing breast cancer less frequent screening appointments would also free up the much-needed resources to carry out more frequent scans for women at high risk.

The science behind the project

Most women aged between 50 and 70 are currently offered breast screening every three years. Based on a previous study with over 58,000 women, researchers know that around 13.5% of women currently receiving regular screening have very low chances of developing breast cancer. So this group of women could benefit from advice to delay their screening appointments. Professor French would now like to work out the optimal frequency of screening appointments for women whose chances of developing breast cancer are very low.

Women would also need to be well informed about the risks and benefits of delaying their screening before making their decision. So it is important to develop materials to appropriately support women in this situation. These could include invitation letters, leaflets and websites that fully and clearly address any questions women may have and give additional information to allow them to make informed decisions about their screening. To understand better what topics these resources should cover, the researchers will interview women, healthcare professionals, and screening experts to identify the key issues that women may face if offered to delay their breast screening.

The researchers will then test the process of recommending to women who have low chances of developing breast cancer to delay further screening. They will be testing this approach in two areas in North West England. The researchers will evaluate how women respond to this suggestion, whether they intend to attend further screening and how well the new healthcare resources answer any questions they might have.

What difference will this project make?

This project will inform whether and how to recommend to women who have very low chances of developing breast cancer that they delay breast screening. These findings will complement other research happening at the moment that looks into offering additional tests at routine breast screening appointments to predict how likely a woman is to develop breast cancer and offering women at high risk more frequent screenings. Together, it could form a new and more personalised breast screening strategy, ensuring that more breast cancers are diagnosed and treated early, whilst avoiding unnecessary screenings and minimising overtreatment.

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