Health chief: screening for breast cancer still life-saver
Health experts have urged women not to be deterred from taking part in life-saving breast cancer screening despite claims it has had little impact on falling death rates.
Experts compared data from three pairs of European countries and found each experienced a similar fall in death rates.
According to research published in the British Medical Journal, death rates appeared to fall in countries where women had been screened for a considerable time - but also in those where women were largely unscreened during the same period.
The study team suggested better treatments and improving health systems were more likely to have contributed to falling death rates than screening.
However, the Public Health Agency said evidence shows breast screening is the most reliable way of detecting early breast cancer at a stage when treatment is usually simpler and more successful, therefore reducing deaths.
The organisation - set up to promote and improve the health of people living in Northern Ireland - said breast cancer treatment is most effective when the cancer is detected at an early stage.
Dr Carolyn Harper, director of Public Health for Northern Ireland, said: "Breast screening reduces the risk of dying from breast cancer.
"As the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, I would encourage all women aged 50 and over to attend for breast screening every three years. Although women aged 50 to 70 are automatically sent invitation letters, a quarter do not attend.
"Women aged over 70 can arrange an appointment by contacting their local breast screening unit."
She added that 97% of women diagnosed through screening survive at least five years, compared to 84% for all breast cancer patients.
The 2009/10 Northern Ireland Breast Screening Programme Annual Report and Statistical Bulletin showed that around one in 23 women screened are called back for further assessment and one in seven of those women will have cancer.
A spokeswoman from leading charity Action Cancer insisted women make use of screening services.
She added: "Early detection saves lives."
Around 950 women a year are diagnosed with breast cancer in Northern Ireland - the majority of them survive.
Changes to look out for:
- Changes in the size, shape or feel of your breasts.
- A new lump or thickening in one breast or armpit.
- Any puckering, dimpling or redness of the skin.
- Changes in the position of the nipple, rash or nipple discharge.
- Pain or discomfort that is new to you and felt only on one side.
- Anyone with concerns should contact their GP immediately.