Breast Cancer Overtreatment Costs An Estimated $4 Billion A Year

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sharpening a medical debate about the costs and benefits of cancer screening, a new report estimates that the U.S. spends $4 billion a year on unnecessary medical costs due to mammograms that generate false alarms, and on treatment of certain breast tumors unlikely to cause problems.

The study published Monday in the journal Health Affairs breaks the cost down as follows: $2.8 billion resulting from false-positive mammograms and another $1.2 billion attributed to breast cancer overdiagnosis. That’s the treatment of tumors that grow slowly or not at all, and are unlikely to develop into life-threatening disease during a woman’s lifetime.

The cost estimates cover women ages 40-59.

Breast cancer is the second most common cause of death from cancer among American women, claiming nearly 41,000 lives a year. Annual mammograms starting at age 40 have long been considered standard for preventive care, because cancer is easier to treat if detected early. But recently there’s been disagreement about regular screening for women in their 40s. It parallels the medical debate about the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening for men.

Study authors Mei-Sing Ong and Kenneth Mandl say their findings indicate that the cost of breast cancer overtreatment appears to be much higher than previously estimated. Their $4 billion figure is the midpoint of a range that depends upon assumptions about the rates of false-positive mammograms and breast cancer overdiagnosis.

Ong is a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and Mandl is a professor at Harvard Medical School.

Apart from the financial cost of screening tests and treatment, false positives and overdiagnosis expose women to risks from additional medical procedures, not to mention psychological distress. It’s not uncommon for mammograms to turn up some apparent abnormality that has to be resolved with more imaging tests or a biopsy.

“We’re hoping that the financial cost —> Read More