Are some cancers better left undiscovered? Get the answer in Kingston, New York.
Is Cancer Screening Good for Patients? New Article Raises Questions
The June 13, 2011 issue of Time Magazine raises questions about the benefits of screening for cancer. The author of the Time Magazine article asserts that "some cancers never cause any sickness at all" and in some cases, "certain cancers can even disappear without treatment." The author further makes the argument that cancer screening is only effective if the cancer would eventually cause "sickness" and if finding the tumor earlier would improve the "efficacy of treatment".
The author states that screening for cancer causes "overdiagnosis", which leads to "harm ranging from unnecessary worry to death". The author makes the case that screening for cancer has few benefits and that the real beneficiaries are doctors and insurance companies who can charge more for cancer screening tests. To save the life of one woman in her 40s, 1,904 would have to undergo annual screening for breast cancer.
What are the hard statistics about the benefits of cancer screening?
What's my take on this article? The central premise of the article is that the benefits of cancer screening are outweighed by the "damage" it causes. Try telling this to a cancer survivor, who is alive today because of a cancer screening test that led to the early detection of cancer.
Even better, let's take a few statistics cited by the author of the article. First, the cold hard truth: cancer kills roughly 600,000 Americans every year.
Mammography has reduced the U.S. breast-cancer mortality rate by 30% since 1989. Pap smears have lowered the cervical cancer mortality rate by 60% since 1975. The rate of colorectal cancer is steadily declining, thanks to screening.
The statistical evidence is overwhelming: screening for cancer saves hundreds of thousands of lives every year in the United States. So what's the problem with cancer screening?
The author seems to take a cost-benefit analysis: since the vast majority of patients screened for cancer will have negative test results, the screening tests are a waste of money for 98% of the patients. The author argues that the screening tests are just concocted by doctors and insurance companies in order to pad their bills and make more money.
A True Story: How Cancer Screening Saves Lives
In the summer of 1996, I came home one night to my apartment in Albany, New York, when I got the shocking news. A routine colonoscopy performed on my mother revealed a large malignant tumor in her colon. My family members and I were floored by this devastating news.
Why was this shocking? My mother was a picture of perfect health. My mother watched her diet carefully, ate right and exercised--everything you are supposed to do to live a long, healthy life. On top of that, my mother felt great and had no symptoms. The colonoscopy was just a screening test that was done at the urging of my father as a routine screening measure for colorectal cancer. No one gave the colonoscopy a second thought...until we got the results.
This story has a happy ending. A couple of days after the diagnosis of colon cancer, an operation was performed to remove the large tumor in my mother's transverse colon. The lymph nodes surrounding the tumor were tested by a pathologist after the operation, and the microscopic inspection of the lymph nodes was negative for the presence of cancer. The surgeon told us that the outlook for my mother was encouraging since the tumor had not spread beyond the wall of the colon (author's side note: one of the best days of my life).
The great news is that my mother beat colon cancer and she is alive and well 15 years after a potentially fatal diagnosis. Without the colonoscopy, my mother would not be alive today.
Is screening for cancer a worthwhile expense? For the 98% of persons with negative test results for cancer screening, it may not be. For the remaining patients, like my mother, cancer screening makes the difference between life and death.
The next time someone tells you that cancer screening is not what it's cracked up to be, think of those persons who are only alive today because of cancer screening. Are the lives saved by cancer screening worth it? Statistics and studies don't always tell the whole story.
What do you think about cancer screening?
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