Background: The long term effect of mammographic service screening is not well established. We aimed to assess the long-term effect of mammographic screening on death from breast cancer, taking into account potential biases from self-selection, changes in breast cancer incidence, and classification of cause of death.
Methods: We compared deaths from breast cancer diagnosed in the 20 years before screening was introduced (1958-77) with those from breast cancer diagnosed in the 20 years after the introduction of screening (1978-97) in two Swedish counties, in 210000 women aged 20-69 years. We also compared deaths from all cancers and from all causes in patients diagnosed with breast cancer in the 20 years before and after screening was introduced. In the analysis, data were stratified into age-groups invited for screening (40-69 years) and not invited (20-39 years), and by whether or not the women had actually received screening. We also analysed mortality for the 40-49-year age-group separately.
Findings: The unadjusted risk of death from breast cancer dropped significantly in the second screening period compared with the first in women aged 40-69 years (relative risk [RR] 0.77 [95% CI 0.7-0.85]; p<0.0001). No such decline was seen in 20-39 year olds. After adjustment for age, self-selection bias, and changes in breast-cancer incidence in the 40-69 years age-group, breast-cancer mortality was reduced in women who were screened (0.56; 0.49-0.64 p<0.0001), in those who were not screened (0.84 [0.71-0.99]; p=0.03), and in screened and unscreened women combined (0.59 [0.53-0.66]; p<0.0001). After adjustment for age, self-selection bias, and changes in incidence in the 40-49-year age-group, deaths from breast cancer fell significantly in those who were screened (0.52 [0.4-0.67]; p<0.0001); and in all women, screened and unscreened combined (0.55 [0.44-0.7] p<0.0001) but not in unscreened women (p=0.2). In both 40-69-year and 40-49-year age-groups, reductions in deaths from all cancers and from all-causes in women with breast cancer were consistent with these results.
Interpretation: Taking account of potential biases, changes in clinical practice and changes in the incidence of breast cancer, mammography screening is contributing to substantial reductions in breast cancer mortality in these two Swedish counties.