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Breast cancer screening "should be better"

A mammogram is a quick and simple procedure

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The Swiss Cancer League has called for all women over the age of 50 to have access to free breast cancer screening programmes.

The campaign comes at the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is being observed across Switzerland.

Currently only the French-speaking part of the country offers routine mammograms to all women aged 50 to 69. Elsewhere testing is carried out based on GP referrals.

However high-risk women with breast cancer in the family are covered by a separate routine screening scheme.

The league says the approach in Switzerland is too patchwork.

"The problem we have at the moment is that there is no law at a national level requiring the introduction of mammogram programmes, leaving it up to the individual cantons to decide their own approach to screening," the league's Nicole Bulliard told swissinfo.

A study carried out by the organisation showed that systematic screening programmes for breast cancer were cheaper and more effective than ad hoc testing.

In cantons where a universal screening programme is in place, all women are invited to come for a mammogram soon after their 50th birthday. They are recalled every two years for the same examination until they reach the age of 70.

Disparity

Béatrice Arzel, a doctor with the Geneva breast cancer screening foundation, is amazed at the disparity between the French- and German-speaking cantons.

"We in French-speaking Switzerland find it hard to understand why they don't follow this model. If you look at Europe, breast cancer screening programmes are the norm and they really make a difference in reducing mortality from the disease," Arzel told swissinfo.

"We definitely need a national programme to end the inequality in Switzerland. The same opportunity should be offered to all woman regardless of where they live."

Early detection gives women the chance to be treated at an early stage of the illness and this has implications not just for chances of survival.

Survival chances

"When the cancer is not advanced the person can avoid the need for mastectomy and chemotherapy," Arzel said.

The league is calling for harmonisation across the 26 cantons of Switzerland both in the quality of the screening system and the way it is funded.

For the past ten years, the cost of mammograms undertaken as part of a screening programme has been reimbursed by compulsory health insurance.

Before the end of the year, the government will decide whether these mammograms will continue to be offered as a "free" service.

swissinfo, Clare O'Dea

Key facts

Breast cancer strikes 1 in 10 women, according to the Swiss Association of Cancer Registries.
More than 15,000 people die every year from cancer in Switzerland.
On average 5,285 women and 37 men were diagnosed annually with breast cancer between 2001 and 2004.
The average annual number of deaths from breast cancer in the same period was 1,361 women and 7 men.

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Palliative care

To mark World Hospice and Palliative Care Day on Saturday, the Swiss Cancer League has produced a brochure destined for terminally ill patients.

The first publication of its kind in Switzerland, it covers such topics as pain management, care and treatment costs and the involvement of loved ones.

The Swiss Cancer League also organises courses for doctors and carers involved in palliative care.

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