Background: Published lead time estimates in breast cancer screening vary from 1 to 7 years and the percentages of overdiagnosis vary from 0 to 75%. The differences are usually explained as random variations. We study how much can be explained by using different definitions and methods.
Methods: We estimated the clinically relevant lead time based on the observed incidence reduction after attending the last screening round in the Norwegian mammography screening programme. We compared this estimate with estimates based on models that do not take overdiagnosis into account (model-based lead times), for varying levels of overdiagnosis. Finally, we calculated overdiagnosis adjusted for clinical and model-based lead times and compared results.
Results: Clinical lead time was about one year based on the reduction in incidence in women previously offered screening. When overdiagnosed tumours were included, the estimates increased to 4-9 years, depending on the age at which screening begins and the level of overdiagnosis. Including all breast cancers detected in women long after the end of the screening programme dilutes the level of overdiagnosis by a factor of 2-3.
Conclusion: When overdiagnosis is not taken into account, lead time is substantially overestimated. Overdiagnosis adjusted for model-based lead time is a function tending to zero, with no simple interpretation. Furthermore, the estimates are not in general comparable, because they depend on both the duration of screening and duration of follow-up. In contrast, overdiagnosis adjusted for clinically relevant tumours is a point estimate (and interpreted as percentage), which we find is the most reasonable method.