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Paul Sankey: Breast cancer screening: are we over-treating?

The fight against cancer is the far more complex matter than many newspaper headlines suggest. We know that diagnosis often takes place later in England than in other European countries and that outcomes are generally worse. In my own practice I regularly act for people who have suffered as a result of mistakes and delays in the diagnosis of their cancer. 
 
Many of us had thought that breast cancer screening was highly effective way of diagnosing this condition early. It is regularly said that screening saves 1,400 lives every year in England.
 
However, recent research suggests that the benefits are exaggerated. In fact, it may have led to over-diagnosis and over- treatment with many women having surgery to remove lumps unnecessarily. They may be left disfigured and then have to endure the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The whole process also causes enormous anxiety from patients unnecessarily told that they may have a cancerous lump. 
 
The “cancer tzar”, Professor Sir Mike Richards, has set up an independent review of the scheme and has ordered NHS leaflets on the screening to be re-written to give detail of the risks as well as the benefits. 
 
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers. Its effects can be devastating but so can unnecessary treatment. It is important to strike the right balance between diagnosing the condition early and avoiding intrusive and possibly unnecessary treatment.
 
My colleagues and I regularly deal with claims where things go wrong in the diagnosis and management of breast cancer. In some cases people are wrongly diagnosed as having a malignant tumour which, when removed, proves to be benign. In other quite tragic cases, people are not diagnosed when they should be. In two of our current cases, scans were either misinterpreted or the correct report never made its way to the patient’s file.
 
All this shows the very difficult issues raised by diagnosis and management of breast cancer and the importance of getting it right. Paul Sankey is a solicitor specialising in clinical negligence. If you or a member of your family have a clinical negligence enquiry please call our expert clinical negligence solicitors on 0800 916 9049, fill in our short online claim form or email enquiries@rjw.co.uk and one of our specialist clinical negligence team will be in touch.

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