Background: Stage shift is widely considered a major determinant of the survival benefit conferred by breast cancer screening. However, factors and mechanisms underlying such a prognostic advantage need further clarification. We sought to compare the molecular characteristics of screen detected vs. symptomatic breast cancers and assess whether differences in tumour biology might translate into survival benefit.
Methods: In a clinical series of 448 women with operable breast cancer, the Kaplan-Meier method and the log-rank test were used to estimate the likelihood of cancer recurrence and death. The Cox proportional hazard model was used for the multivariate analyses including mode of detection, age at diagnosis, tumour size, and lymph node status. These same models were applied to subgroups defined by molecular subtypes.
Results: Screen detected breast cancers tended to show more favourable clinicopathological features and survival outcomes compared to symptomatic cancers. The luminal A subtype was more common in women with mammography detected tumours than in symptomatic patients (68.5 vs. 59.0%, p=0.04). Data analysis across categories of molecular subtypes revealed significantly longer disease free and overall survival for screen detected cancers with a luminal A subtype only (p=0.01 and 0.02, respectively). For women with a luminal A subtype, the independent prognostic role of mode of detection on recurrence was confirmed in Cox proportional hazard models (p=0.03). An independent role of modality of detection on survival was also suggested (p=0.05).
Conclusions: Molecular subtypes did not substantially explain the differences in survival outcomes between screened and symptomatic patients. However, our results suggest that molecular profiles might play a role in interpreting such differences at least partially.Further studies are warranted to reinterpret the efficacy of screening programmes in the light of tumour biology.