Screen-detected vs clinical breast cancer: The advantage in the relative risk of lymph node metastases decreases with increasing tumour size

L. Bucchi, A. Barchielli, A. Ravaioli, M. Federico, V. De Lisi, S. Ferretti, E. Paci, M. Vettorazzi, S. Patriarca, A. Frigerio, E. Buiatti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Screen-detected (SD) breast cancers are smaller and biologically more indolent than clinically presenting cancers. An often debated question is: if left undiagnosed during their preclinical phase, would they become more aggressive or would they only increase in size? This study considered a registry-based series (1988-1999) of 3329 unifocal, pT1a-pT3 breast cancer cases aged 50-70 years, of which 994 were SD cases and 2335 clinical cases. The rationale was that (1) the average risk of lymph node involvement (N +) is lower for SD cases, (2) nodal status is the product of biological aggressiveness and chronological age of the disease, (3) for any breast cancer, tumour size is an indicator of chronological age, and (4) for SD cases, tumour size is specifically an indicator of the duration of the preclinical phase, that is, an inverse indicator of lead time. The hypothesis was that the relative protection of SD cases from the risk of N + and, thus, their relative biological indolence decrease with increasing tumour size. The odds ratio (OR) estimate of the risk of N + was obtained from a multiple logistic regression model that included terms for detection modality, tumour size category, patient age, histological type, and number of lymph nodes recovered. A term for the detection modality-by-tumour size category interaction was entered, and the OR for the main effect of detection by screening vs clinical diagnosis was calculated. This increased linearly from 0.05 (95% confidence interval: 0.01-0.39) in the 2-7 mm size category to 0.95 (0.64-1.40) in the 18-22 mm category. This trend is compatible with the view that biological aggressiveness of breast cancer increases during the preclinical phase.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)156-161
Number of pages6
JournalBritish Journal of Cancer
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 17 2005


  • Breast carcinoma
  • Lymph nodes
  • Mammography
  • Natural history
  • Screening

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cancer Research
  • Oncology


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