women

Cancer screening is oversold. Know the tests to get – and those to skip

Early detection saves lives. That’s the assumption that drives aggressive cancer-screening campaigns. It’s what persuades women to host “mammogram parties” where they gather friends for wine, cheese, massages, prizes, and breast-cancer screenings. It’s what persuades men to offer up blood for prostate-cancer tests at hockey games or onboard a huge red bus parked at sporting – goods stores.

Cancer screening is oversold.

Cancer screening is oversold.

But the big red bus and other direct-to-consumer screening efforts raise big red flags, our experts say. For one, those campaigns may not be entirely altruistic. In exchange for snacks and door prizes, the radiology clinics and hospitals often behind the campaigns benefit from a new crop of paying customers. Zero, the nonprofit group that offers free prostate-cancer screening at events around the country, counts among its partner’s doctors and businesses that can benefit financially from cancer testing and treatment.

But most important, the message that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain from being screened for cancer – that is, to be tested for a cancer before you have any symptoms of it- simply isn’t true.

“The medical and public-health community has systematically exaggerated the benefits of screening for years and downplayed the harms,” says H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in Lebanon, N.H.

In a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Welch found that the number of early breast-cancer cases had shot up since mammography became common three decades ago but that advanced cancer cases hadn’t declined much. Welch estimated that in 2008 more than 70,000 women 40 and older were found to have small, nonaggressive cancers that were treated even though they probably wouldn’t be life-threatening.

Such treatment, including radiation or the surgical removal of all or part of the breast, can cause serious complications, such as bone loss and menopause like symptoms. And even when it doesn’t lead to treatment, screening can lead to unnecessary biopsies, which can cause anxiety and pose a small risk of infection.

 
The number of early breast-cancer cases had shot up since mammography became common three decades ago but tha advanced cancer cases hadn’t declined much.

The number of early breast-cancer cases had shot up since mammography became common three decades ago but that advanced cancer cases hadn’t declined much.

“When it comes to screening, most people see only the positives,” says Otis Braw-ley, M.D., chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. “They don’t just underestimate the negatives, they don’t’ even know they exist.”

Of course, for some tests, the benefits clearly do outweigh the risks. “My family’s experience illustrates how screening can make all the difference,” says Tracy Doss, an educational assistant in Austin, Texas. Doss lost her father and a grandfather to colon cancer but probably won’t develop the disease herself, because doctors found and removed precancerous growths using colonoscopy and she will continue to be screened.

But for many other cancer tests, the benefits and risks are more evenly balanced, with the final decision depending on a thorough conversation between patient and doctor. And with some tests, routine screening poses more risks than benefits, and needless expense.

“The marketing message that early detection saves lives is simple and compelling,” says Laura Nikolaides, M.S., director of research and quality-care programs at the National Breast Cancer Coalition. “But the reality as we understand it today is much more nuanced. The problem is how to get that more complex message to the public when it’s so different than what they’ve come to believe.”

For this investigation, we pored over reams of research, consulted medical experts, surveyed more than 10,000 readers, and talked with patients. We found that too many people are getting tests they don’t need or understand, and too few are getting those that could save their lives. Many patients, and even some doctors, can be confused by cancer screening. That’s because:

Cancer is different than once thought.

Doctors used to view cancer as uniformly deadly, but researchers now understand that cancer cells can appear and then disappear on their own, or never spread. Most screening tests don’t discriminate between the harmless and deadly kinds.

Most screening tests don’t discriminate between the harmless and deadly kinds.

Most screening tests don’t discriminate between the harmless and deadly kinds.

Statistics can mislead.

“Doctors and patients don’t understand numbers,” says Jeffrey Starke, M.D., director of infection control at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. “You can take the same set of data and either scare people or reassure them depending on how you represent the numbers.” Starke knows firsthand about the potential harm of screening. He almost             died of an infection following what he now views as an unwarranted biopsy triggered by prostate-cancer screening.

Some tests just aren’t very good

For example, screening for pancreatic and ovarian cancers doesn’t save lives in part because tests rarely find them at a curable stage.

Bottom line.

Weighing the risks and benefits of cancer screening is best done in the context of a doctor-patient relationship, not at a party or a sporting event. “It’s wrong to promote these tests for everybody,” says R. Chou, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “Truth is, sometimes the choice to screen or not is a close call.”

Cancer 2.0

Cancer screening and treatment are at a crossroads. As tests become more sensitive, they find increasingly tinnier cancers, and more of them. But many of those abnormal cells don’t’ fit our conventional notion of how cancer behaves.

“The popular understanding of cancer-that if you have even a single cancer cell, it will multiply to the point that it eventually kills you – is fundamentally wrong,” says V. Moyer, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and chairwoman of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel that provides evidence based guidelines on health care. “What we’ve learned in the last decade or so is that cancer doesn’t always act like that. Lots and lots of cells in our body turn cancerous and then disappear; others look like cancer but do absolutely nothing.”

People are compelled toward screening and prevention as a means to secure their health

People are compelled toward screening and prevention as a means to secure their health

For example, in younger women, cancer-like changes in the cervix are more likely to clear up on their own. That’s one reason the task force no longer recommends Pap smears for women younger than 21.

In fact, no screening test is right for everyone. To reduce the number of false alarms, guidelines target those at increased risk for a disease. So, for example, screening CT scans for lung cancer have only been found to help people at the highest risk, those ages 55 to 74 who were heavy smokers for many years. Screening those at lower risk wouldn’t reduce mortality rates, research suggests, but would expose people to radiation, as well as follow up tests and procedures to chase down false alarms.

Focusing on high-risk populations alone, however, doesn’t solve the problem of tests that are pretty good at finding suspicious changes but don’t tell much about whether they can actually hurt you, such as mammograms for breast cancer and prostate-specific-antigen (PSA) blood tests for prostate cancer. And that leaves many people in a quandary, trying to decide whether the risk of treatment is worth the slight chance of finding a deadly cancer.

“People are compelled toward screening and prevention as a means to secure their health,: says K. Lovett, M.D., of the Center for Patient Safety at the University of California at San Diego. “It’s frustrating that we don’t have the data to address these uncertainties.”

Some people are even taking matters in their own hands, seeking tests through companies that advertise directly to consumers. They include blood tests for prostate cancer, stool tests for colon cancer, and even self-referrals for breast-cancer screening, including thermo-graphic (heat) imaging, which the American Cancer Society says should never be used in place of mammography.

By passing your doctor is a mistake, Lovett says, because she has found that almost no screening test marketed directly to consumers is clearly supported by evidence-based guidelines. “The system is breaking under consumer demand for screening and preventive care,” she adds. “Truly, there is dissatisfaction among both patients and physicians.”

 

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