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Study casts doubt on breast self-exam.

Women who want to detect a breast cancer at an early, and thus most curable, stage are often advised to do a regular examination of their breasts. That advice seems like common sense. But do women who regularly examine their breasts detect more malignant breast tumors than women who do not? A new study suggests the answer may be no.

David B. Thomas of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and his colleagues, including a Chinese team, studied 267,040 women who work in Shanghai textile factories. Half received intensive training on how to do a breast self-exam, and the other half formed a control group that attended training sessions on how to prevent back pain.

For several years, the researchers noted how many participants developed breast cancer. They discovered that malignant tumors were detected at the same rate in the control group as in the self-exam group, although the women doing self-exams turned up more benign tumors. The team details its findings in the March 5 Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

The findings suggest that breast self-exam won't reduce the number of women dying from breast cancer. However, the researchers must continue their study for another 5 years in order to prove-or disprove-that conclusion, Thomas says.

Women who regularly examine their own breasts and don't find lumps shouldn't be lulled into a "false sense of security," Thomas says. On the other hand, because the research can't provide a definitive answer on breast self-exams, he doesn't want to discourage women from this practice. Neither does the Atlanta-based American Cancer Society, which still advises breast self-exams as a prudent course of action.

From a public health perspective, the only screening measure generally recognized to reduce the breast cancer death toll is mammography in women age 50 and older, Thomas says.

For everyone else, the science of breast cancer prevention remains murky. For now, women under 50 must make decisions based on incomplete data. "I tell people, you just have to learn to live with uncertainty," Thomas says.
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Author:Fackelmann, Kathleen
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 29, 1997
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