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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Warning over breast cancer checks
Woman undergoing breast cancer screening
Women should be aware of changes to the breasts
Advising women to regularly check their breasts for lumps does not cut deaths from cancer, a study suggests.

Researchers in the United States found that women who self-examine their breasts were unlikely to spot tumours earlier than those who do not carry out the checks.

Experts said the findings highlighted the fact that breast self-examination is difficult to do properly.


Women should be aware of their breast and what is normal for them, the feel, the look and the shape

Sarah Turner, Cancer Research UK
They suggested that women should instead be told how to spot the symptoms of breast cancer.

These include changes to the size, shape and feel of the breast or nipple and any pain or discomfort.

The study by scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle echoes previous research which has questioned whether women should be told to examine their breasts at regular intervals.

Eleven-year study

Dr David Thomas and colleagues based their findings on an 11-year study of more than 266,000 women in Shanghai.

The women were divided into two groups. Those in the first group were taught how to perform breast self-examination (BSE) and were giving regular refresher courses and reminders to check for lumps. The second group received no such information.

The researchers found that death rates among women in both groups were the same after 10 years.

They also found that women in the first group did not identify cancer tumours earlier than those who had received no information.

However, women who regularly checked their breasts were more likely to spot non-cancerous lumps.


If you do notice something unusual, it is important to go to the doctor and get it checked out

Breast Cancer Care spokeswoman
Dr Thomas said the findings showed that women should go for regular screenings rather than depend on self-examination.

"We would say for women over the age of 50 mammography is a useful tool to try to detect breast cancer early and to reduce a women's chance of dying from breast cancer whereas for general public health policy it does not appear that breast self exams are very helpful."

Speaking to the BBC, he added: "Breast self-examination is not a substitute for a mammogram."

Breast aware

The charity Cancer Research UK, which advises the government on its breast screening programmes, said the findings were not surprising.

Sarah Turner, its senior cancer information nurse said: "Most organisations have moved away from the prescriptive message telling women that they must check their breasts at regular intervals.

"What we do advocate quite strongly is the importance of breast awareness - women should be aware of their breast and what is normal for them, the feel, the look and the shape.

"They should report any changes in the size, shape or feel to their GP," she told BBC News Online.

Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at the charity, added: "Breast self examination was abandoned over 10 years ago in this county.

"It is actually a complex technique which often leads to women abandoning it or not being able to do it properly."

Michelle Barclay, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, urged women to be 'breast aware'.

"Being breast aware does save lives and early detection does save lives," she said.

A spokeswoman for Breast Cancer Care added: "If you do notice something unusual, it is important to go to the doctor and get it checked out, or if you are part of a screening programme, to take up your appointments."

The study is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Richard Bilton
"Self-examination can still have a crucial role"
Research director Dr David Thomas
of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Centre in Seattle talks to the BBC
See also:

17 Sep 02 | Health
27 Sep 02 | Health
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