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Mammograms: For 1 life saved, 3 women overtreated

LONDON — Breast cancer screening for women age 50 and over saves lives, an independent panel in Britain has concluded, confirming US findings and other studies. But that screening comes with a cost: extensive overtreatment.

The review found that for every life saved, roughly three other women were overdiagnosed, meaning they were unnecessarily treated for a cancer that would never have threatened their lives.

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The panel was commissioned by Cancer Research UK and Britain’s department of health, and analyzed evidence from 11 trials in Canada, Sweden, the UK, and the United States. The review was published online Tuesday in the journal Lancet. In Britain, mammograms are usually offered to women aged 50 to 70 every three years as part of the state-funded breast cancer screening program.

Scientists said the British program saves about 1,300 women every year from dying of breast cancer, while about 4,000 women are overdiagnosed. By that term, researchers mean women treated for cancers that grow too slowly to ever put their lives at risk.

This is different from another screening problem: false alarms, which occur when suspicious mammograms lead to biopsies and follow-up tests to rule out cancers that were not present. The study did not look at the false alarm rate.

‘‘It’s clear that screening saves lives,’’ said Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK. ‘‘But some cancers will be treated that would never have caused any harm and unfortunately, we can’t yet tell which cancers are harmful and which are not.’’

Each year, more than 300,000 women aged 50 to 52 are offered a mammogram through the British program.

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