Background: Compared with women aged 50-69 years, the lower sensitivity of mammographic screening in women aged 40-49 years is largely attributed to the lower mammographic tumor detectability and faster tumor growth in the younger women.
Methods: We used a Monte Carlo simulation model of breast cancer screening by age to estimate the median tumor size detectable on a mammogram and the mean tumor volume doubling time. The estimates were calculated by calibrating the predicted breast cancer incidence rates to the actual rates from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) database and the predicted distributions of screen-detected tumor sizes to the actual distributions obtained from the Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC). The calibrated parameters were used to estimate the relative impact of lower mammographic tumor detectability vs faster tumor volume doubling time on the poorer screening outcomes in younger women compared with older women. Mammography screening outcomes included sensitivity, mean tumor size at detection, lifetime gained, and breast cancer mortality. In addition, the relationship between screening sensitivity and breast cancer mortality was investigated as a function of tumor volume doubling time, mammographic tumor detectability, and screening interval.
Results: Lowered mammographic tumor detectability accounted for 79% and faster tumor volume doubling time accounted for 21% of the poorer sensitivity of mammography screening in younger women compared with older women. The relative contributions were similar when the impact of screening was evaluated in terms of mean tumor size at detection, lifetime gained, and breast cancer mortality. Screening sensitivity and breast cancer mortality reduction attributable to screening were almost linearly related when comparing annual or biennial screening with no screening. However, when comparing annual with biennial screening, the greatest reduction in breast cancer mortality attributable to screening did not correspond to the greatest gain in screening sensitivity and was more strongly affected by the mammographic tumor detectability than tumor volume doubling time.
Conclusion: The age-specific differences in mammographic tumor detection contribute more than age-specific differences in tumor growth rates to the lowered performance of mammography screening in younger women.