Note: If you haven’t already, you should read PART 1 of this two-part series. It defines several terms that I will be using in this post, and I don’t plan on explaining them again, given that they were explained in detail in Part 1. Of course, if you’re a medical professional and already know what lead time bias, length bias, and stage migration are, then it goes without saying that you should still read Part 1 for its scintillating prose.
When last I left this topic three weeks ago, I had discussed why detecting cancer at ever-earlier stages and ever-smaller sizes is not necessarily an unalloyed good. At that time, I discussed in detail a landmark commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled, Advances in Diagnostic Imaging and Overestimations of Disease Prevalence and the Benefits of Therapy. The article, although nearly 15 years old, rings just as true today in its cautioning doctors about whether ever-increasing diagnostic sensitivity that imaging technology and new blood tests were (and are) providing was actually helping patients as much as we thought it was. Before we dive into this problem as applied to breast cancer, let’s review what Drs. Black and Welch had to say about screening tests for breast cancer 15 years ago, as way of background and linking my last post and this one:
Before the widespread use of mammography, most breast cancers were discovered on physical examination, as palpable lumps. In one of the few studies to assess directly the accuracy of physical examination in screening for breast cancer, only 27 percent of tumors more than 1.0 cm in diameter and 10 percent of those less than 1.0 cm in diameter were detected by physical examination. However, the mean size of breast cancers detected by state-of-the-art screening mammography is about 1.0 cm, and many of the cancers detected as microcalcifications are only a few millimeters in size.
Again, prevalence depends on the degree of scrutiny. According to the Connecticut Tumor Registry, clinically apparent breast cancer afflicts about 1 percent of all women between the ages of 40 and 50 years. In a recent medicolegal autopsy study, however, small foci of breast cancer were found in 39 percent of women in this age group. Most cancers were in the form of ductal carcinoma in situ. Furthermore, over 45 percent of the women with cancer had two or more lesions, and over 40 percent had bilateral lesions. Although it has been argued that such small in situ lesions are not detected by and are therefore irrelevant to screening mammography, about half the lesions in that study were detected, usually as microcalcifications, on postmortem plain-film radiography of the resected breasts. Because of continual technical improvements and increasingly broad criteria for the interpretation of mammograms, the detection threshold for breast cancer has fallen considerably since the time of the Breast Cancer Screening Project of the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York (1963 to 1975). This can explain the increased prevalence of cancer on mammographic screening, from 2.717 to 7.614 per 1000 examinations (with the incidence increasing from 1.517 to 3.214 per 1000 examinations). The lower detection threshold can also explain the increase in the percentage of carcinomas in situ (stage 0) among all mammographically detected cancers — from 12.7 percent to over 30 percent. The principal indication for biopsy has changed from suspicious mass to suspicious microcalcifications. This can explain why the reported incidence of breast cancer has increased and why most of the increase is in smaller lesions, particularly ductal carcinoma in situ.
About a year ago, three major articles hit the medical press that made me start thinking about this more than I had in the past. It’s my job, after all, because breast cancer surgery is a large part of my practice, and I do breast cancer lab-based research. What also tweaked me not to put off doing part 2 of this series is that, just two days ago, there was an abstract presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Meeting (where I still am today) that also serves to highlight just how difficult this question of integrating a test as sensitive as MRI into a screening regimen for and preoperative evaluation of breast cancer is and how MRI should fit into in this regimen can be.