Harms of Breast Cancer Screening: Systematic Review to Update the 2009 U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation

Ann Intern Med. 2016 Feb 16;164(4):256-67. doi: 10.7326/M15-0970. Epub 2016 Jan 12.


Background: In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended biennial mammography screening for women aged 50 to 74 years and selective screening for those aged 40 to 49 years.

Purpose: To review studies of screening in average-risk women with mammography, magnetic resonance imaging, or ultrasonography that reported on false-positive results, overdiagnosis, anxiety, pain, and radiation exposure.

Data sources: MEDLINE and Cochrane databases through December 2014.

Study selection: English-language systematic reviews, randomized trials, and observational studies of screening.

Data extraction: Investigators extracted and confirmed data from studies and dual-rated study quality. Discrepancies were resolved through consensus.

Data synthesis: Based on 2 studies of U.S. data, 10-year cumulative rates of false-positive mammography results and biopsies were higher with annual than biennial screening (61% vs. 42% and 7% vs. 5%, respectively) and for women aged 40 to 49 years, those with dense breasts, and those using combination hormone therapy. Twenty-nine studies using different methods reported overdiagnosis rates of 0% to 54%; rates from randomized trials were 11% to 22%. Women with false-positive results reported more anxiety, distress, and breast cancer-specific worry, although results varied across 80 observational studies. Thirty-nine observational studies indicated that some women reported pain during mammography (1% to 77%); of these, 11% to 46% declined future screening. Models estimated 2 to 11 screening-related deaths from radiation-induced cancer per 100,000 women using digital mammography, depending on age and screening interval. Five observational studies of tomosynthesis and mammography indicated increased biopsies but reduced recalls compared with mammography alone.

Limitations: Studies of overdiagnosis were highly heterogeneous, and estimates varied depending on the analytic approach. Studies of anxiety and pain used different outcome measures. Radiation exposure was based on models.

Conclusion: False-positive results are common and are higher for annual screening, younger women, and women with dense breasts. Although overdiagnosis, anxiety, pain, and radiation exposure may cause harm, their effects on individual women are difficult to estimate and vary widely.

Primary funding source: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Breast / anatomy & histology
  • Breast Density
  • Breast Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Breast Neoplasms / mortality
  • Early Detection of Cancer / adverse effects*
  • Early Detection of Cancer / psychology
  • False Positive Reactions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / adverse effects
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / psychology
  • Mammary Glands, Human / abnormalities
  • Mammography / adverse effects
  • Mammography / psychology
  • Mass Screening / adverse effects*
  • Mass Screening / psychology
  • Medical Overuse
  • Middle Aged
  • Neoplasms, Radiation-Induced / mortality
  • Pain / etiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / etiology
  • Time Factors
  • Ultrasonography, Mammary / adverse effects
  • Ultrasonography, Mammary / psychology