Medline: 9060957

The fulltext Journal of the National Cancer Institute 89(5): 355-365, 1997. is available online for subscribers.

Randomized trial of breast self-examination in Shanghai: methodology and preliminary results.

Thomas DB, Gao DL, Self SG, et al.


The efficacy of breast self-examination in helping to reduce mortality from breast cancer has not been rigorously demonstrated.

To assess efficacy, a large, randomized trial was initiated in Shanghai, China.

From October 1989 to October 1991, 267040 current and retired female employees associated with 520 factories in the Shanghai Textile Industry Bureau were randomly assigned on the basis of factory to either a self-examination instruction group (133375 women) or a control group (133665 women). The women were born within the period from 1925 through 1958. Women in the instruction group were given intensive training in breast self-examination, including the use of silicone breast models and personalized instruction, plus two subsequent reinforcement sessions and multiple reminders to practice the technique. Women in the control group were asked to attend training sessions on the prevention of low back pain. All women have been followed for the development of breast diseases and for death from breast cancer.

A high level of participation during the first 4-5 years of the trial was documented among women in the instruction group. Randomly sampled women in this group demonstrated greater proficiency in detecting lumps in breast models than did randomly sampled women in the control group. Approximately equal numbers of breast cancers were detected in the two groups (331 in the instruction group and 322 in the control group) through 1994, which is the last year for which case-finding efforts have been completed. The breast cancers detected in the instruction group were not diagnosed at an appreciably earlier stage or smaller size than those in the control group. More benign breast lesions were detected in the instruction group than in the control group (1457 versus 623, respectively), suggesting a higher index of suspicion for women who received training. Cumulative breast cancer mortality rates through 5 years from entry into the study were nearly equivalent for the two groups.

Breast self-examination has not led to a reduction in mortality from breast cancer in this study cohort in the first several years since the trial began. A shift toward the diagnosis of disease at a less advanced stage in women given instruction has also not been demonstrated. Longer follow-up of participants in this trial is required before final assessment can be made of the efficacy of breast self-examination. IMPLICATIONS: At this time, there is insufficient evidence to recommend for or against the teaching of breast self-examination.

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Dr. G. Quade