STUDY OBJECTIVE: To study the implications of breast density on mammographic screening performance. DESIGN: Screening outcomes of women with dense breast patterns were compared with those of women with lucent breast patterns (dense > 25% densities, lucent < or = 25% densities); the women were screened in different periods (before/after improvement of the mammographic technique in 1982). SETTING: Nijmegen, the Netherlands, 1977-1994. PARTICIPANTS: Between 1977 and 1994, 73,525 repeat screenings were performed in 19,152 participants (aged 50-69 years) in the Nijmegen breast cancer screening programme (repeat screenings were defined as mammographic examinations that were preceded by an examination in the previous screening round). Participants were screened biennially with mammography. There were 258 screen detected and 145 interval cancers. MAIN RESULTS: Before 1982 (rounds 2-4) the predictive value of a positive screening test (PV+) was lower in women with dense breasts than in those with lucent breasts (dense 29% v lucent 52%, p = 0.003). Also, the ratio of screen detected cancers to the total number of screen detected plus interval cancers (as a proxy for sensitivity) was lower in this group (based on a one year interval: dense 63% v lucent 92%, p = 0.001 and based on a two year interval: dense 41% v lucent 68%, p = 0.002). Moreover, the survival rate was less favourable for those with dense breasts (p = 0.07). In rounds 5-10, there were no important differences with respect to PV+ (dense 66% v lucent 62%, p = 0.57) or survival (p = 0.48). Moreover, sensitivity based on a one year interval was nearly as high in women with dense breasts as in those with lucent breasts (85% v 86%, p = 0.75). However, based on a two year interval sensitivity was lower (dense 59% v lucent 72%, p = 0.04). CONCLUSIONS: In the early screening years (rounds 2-4) high breast density had an unfavourable effect on screening performance. Nowadays, the situation has improved with respect to PV+, survival and detecting tumours in dense breasts with a lead time of up to one year, but little improvement has occurred in the detection of tumours with a lead time greater than one year.
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