Overdiagnosis of invasive breast cancer due to mammography screening: results from the Norwegian screening program

Ann Intern Med. 2012 Apr 3;156(7):491-9. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-156-7-201204030-00005.


Background: Precise quantification of overdiagnosis of breast cancer (defined as the percentage of cases of cancer that would not have become clinically apparent in a woman's lifetime without screening) due to mammography screening has been hampered by lack of valid comparison groups that identify incidence trends attributable to screening versus those due to temporal trends in incidence.

Objective: To estimate the percentage of overdiagnosis of breast cancer attributable to mammography screening.

Design: Comparison of invasive breast cancer incidence with and without screening.

Setting: A nationwide mammography screening program in Norway (inviting women aged 50 to 69 years), gradually implemented from 1996 to 2005.

Participants: The Norwegian female population.

Measurements: Concomitant incidence of invasive breast cancer from 1996 to 2005 in counties where the screening program was implemented compared with that in counties where the program was not yet implemented. To adjust for changes in temporal trends in breast cancer incidence, incidence rates during the preceding decade were also examined. The percentage of overdiagnosis was calculated by accounting for the expected decrease in incidence following cessation of screening after age 69 years (approach 1) and by comparing incidence in the current screening group with incidence among women 2 and 5 years older in the historical screening groups, accounting for average lead time (approach 2).

Results: A total of 39,888 patients with invasive breast cancer were included, 7793 of whom were diagnosed after the screening program started. The estimated rate of overdiagnosis attributable to the program was 18% to 25% (P < 0.001) for approach 1 and 15% to 20% (P < 0.001) for approach 2. Thus, 15% to 25% of cases of cancer are overdiagnosed, translating to 6 to 10 women overdiagnosed for every 2500 women invited.

Limitation: The study was registry-based.

Conclusion: Mammography screening entails a substantial amount of overdiagnosis.

Primary funding source: Norwegian Research Council and Frontier Science.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnostic imaging*
  • Breast Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Early Detection of Cancer
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Mammography / standards*
  • Mass Screening / methods
  • Mass Screening / standards*
  • Middle Aged
  • Norway / epidemiology
  • Registries
  • Time Factors