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OBJECTIVE: To evaluate the efficacy of annual mammography over and above annual physical examination of the breasts and the teaching of breast self-examination among women aged 50 to 59 on entry. DESIGN: Individually randomized controlled trial. SETTING: Fifteen urban centres in Canada with expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. PARTICIPANTS: Women with no history of breast cancer and no mammography in the previous 12 months were randomly assigned to undergo either annual mammography and physical examination (MP group) or annual physical examination only (PO group). The 39,405 women enrolled from January 1980 through March 1985 were followed for a mean of 8.3 years. DATA COLLECTION: Derived from the participants by initial and annual self-administered questionnaires, from the screening examinations, from the patients' physicians, from the provincial cancer registries and by record linkage to the Canadian National Mortality Data Base. Expert panels evaluated histologic and death data. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES: Rates of referral from screening, rates of detection of breast cancer from screening and from community care, nodal status, tumour size and rates of death from all causes and from breast cancer. RESULTS: Over 85% of the women in each group attended the screening sessions after screen 1. The characteristics of the women in the two groups were similar. Compared with the Canadian population the participants were more likely to be married, have fewer children, have more education, be in a professional occupation, smoke less and have been born in North America. The rate of screen-detected breast cancer on first examination was 7.20 per 1000 in the MP group and 3.45 per 1000 in the PO group, more node-positive tumours were found in the MP group than in the PO group. At subsequent screens the detection rates were a little less than half the rates at screen 1. During years 2 through 5 the ratios of observed to expected cases of invasive breast cancer were 1.28 in the MP group and 1.18 in the PO group. Of the women with invasive breast cancer through to 7 years, 217 in the MP group and 184 in the PO group had no node involvement, 66 and 56 had one to three nodes involved, 32 and 34 had four or more nodes involved, and 55 and 46 had an unknown nodal status. There were 38 deaths from breast cancer in the MP group and 39 in the PO group. The ratio of the proportions of death from breast cancer in the MP group compared with those in the UC group was 0.97 (95% confidence interval 0.62 to 1.52). The survival rates were similar in the two groups. Women whose cancer had been detected by mammography alone had the highest survival rate. CONCLUSION: The study was internally valid, and there was no evidence of randomization bias. Screening with yearly mammography in addition to physical examination of the breasts detected considerably more node-negative, small tumours than screening with physical examination alone, but it had no impact on the rate of death from breast cancer up to 7 years' follow-up from entry.