Open Access Open Badges Research article

Overdiagnosis of breast cancer in the Norwegian Breast Cancer Screening Program estimated by the Norwegian Women and Cancer cohort study

Eiliv Lund1*, Nicolle Mode1, Marit Waaseth2 and Jean-Christophe Thalabard3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Community Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway

2 Department of Pharmacy, University of Tromsø - The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway

3 Applied Mathematics Lab, Paris Descartes University, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Assistance Publique- Hôpitaux de Paris, UMR CNRS 8145, Paris, France

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BMC Cancer 2013, 13:614  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-13-614

Published: 30 December 2013



There is increasing ambiguity towards national mammographic screening programs due to varying publicized estimates of overdiagnosis, i.e., breast cancer that would not have been diagnosed in the women’s lifetime outside screening. This analysis compares the cumulative incidence of breast cancer in screened and unscreened women in Norway from the start of the fully implemented Norwegian Breast Cancer Screening Program (NBCSP) in 2005.


Subjects were 53 363 women in the Norwegian Women and Cancer (NOWAC) study, aged 52–79 years, with follow-up through 2010. Mammogram and breast cancer risk factor information were taken from the most recent questionnaire (2002–07) before the start of individual follow-up. The analysis differentiated screening into incidence (52–69 years) and post screening (70–79 years). Relative risks (RR) were estimated by Poisson regression.


The analysis failed to detect a significantly increased cumulative incidence rate in screened versus other women 52–79 years. RR of breast cancer among women outside the NBCSP, the “control group”, was non-significantly reduced by 7% (RR = 0∙93; 95% confidence interval 0∙79 to 1∙10) compared to those in the program. The RR was attenuated when adjusted for risk factors; RRadj = 0∙97 (0∙82 to 1∙15). The control group consisted of two subpopulations, those who only had a mammogram outside the program (RRadj =1∙04; 0∙86 to 1∙26) and those who never had a mammogram (RRadj = 0∙77; 0∙59 to 1∙01). These groups differed significantly with respect to risk factors for breast cancer, partly as a consequence of the prescription rules for hormone therapy which indicate a mammogram.


In the fully implemented NBCSP, no significant difference was found in cumulative incidence rates of breast cancer between NOWAC women screened and not screened. Naïve comparisons of screened and unscreened women may be affected by important differences in risk factors. The current challenge for the screening program is to improve the diagnostics used at prevalence screenings (ages 50–51).

Breast cancer; Mammography screening; Overdiagnosis; Hormone therapy