1,000 breast cancer errors a year

Monday's Svenska Dagbladet reported the startling results of a study into unnecessary treatment of breast cancer in Norway and Sweden.

The Norwegian research team claims that around 500 women in Norway and 1,000 women in Sweden are subjected to unnecessary breast cancer treatment every year following routine mammography screening. These false diagnoses are claimed to be responsible for a third of reported new cases.

The problem is that mammography cannot distinguish between benign and malignant breast tumours, but all diagnoses are being operated on.

Jan Maehlen, who led the statistical study, explained to SvD: “If mammography is supposed to discover dangerous tumours in those under 69 years of age, the incidence of breast cancer in those over 69 should reduce accordingly. This hasn’t happened in Norway or Sweden.”

Maehlen finds support from controversial Danish researcher, Peter Goetzsche, a breast screening opponent. But Swedish experts are more sceptical. Professor Ingvar Andersson of the National Board of Health and Welfare told SvD: “It’s difficult to evaluate the analysis, but the figures seem to be far too high.”

However, Andersson does admit that not enough is known about the problem of over-diagnosis and proposes a review of the six Swedish studies so far conducted on breast screening. 700,000 women are screened in Sweden every year.

Meanwhile, several papers picked up on an uncannily well-timed campaign by insurance giant AIG Europe, encouraging women to insure their breasts against cancer.

The premium varies with age – from 504 crowns a year for a 30 year-old woman to 1,068 crowns a year for a 50 year-old. Policy holders who are affected by breast or gynaecological cancers receive a one-off payment of 50,000 crowns, plus 5,000 crowns a month for a year.

Cynical exploitation of women’s worst fears? Or a useful policy, which can help out in life’s toughest moments? Gunnar Olsson, head of an insurance watchdog for consumers, says he’s received a number of enquiries: “The odd individual has said the policy was distasteful, but most callers just want to find out more. I think it could be an interesting new concept. These days there’s a good prognosis for breast cancer and most patients don’t suffer long term harm, so you don’t get compensation from the usual health and accident policies.”

AIG Europe have recognised the sensitivity of the subject. Magnus Ohlsson, marketing chief for Sweden said: “We don’t want to publish scare stories, the information must feel right. We’ve had a good response from clients, screening clinics and [cancer charity] Cancerfonden.”

But the question is, do you get the payout if you’re wrongly diagnosed with cancer and operated on anyway? Make sure you check the small print.