Detecting Cancer Sooner May Not Really Save Your Life

Experts are reassessing screening protocols.

Posted: 11/14/2011 09:44 AM EST
Cancer, detection, treatment, health

For years, whether through health-related articles or testimonials from cancer patients and survivors, we have always been told that early detection will increase our chance of surviving.  But now cancer experts are suggesting that may not really be true.


So what's the deal?


Experts including some from the American Cancer Society are suggesting that in some cases tumors grow so slow that they never really pose any life-threatening risks, while others are so aggressive that early detection really doesn't matter. They believe that the cancer treatments that we have now work best in people who are somewhere in between. So this theory of screen, screen and screen may not be as helpful as we once thought.


American Cancer Society's Dr. Len Lichtenfeld told the Associated Press, "We can find cancer early. We can reduce the burden of the disease. But along the way, we're learning our tests are not as perfect as we'd like. We're learning that we're now finding cancer that would in fact never cause harm."


So which cancers benefit from early detection and which don't?


The AP reported:


Cervical and colorectal cancers benefit from screenings. They can spot pre-cancerous growths that are fairly easy to remove, although even some of those tests can be used too frequently. More serious questions surround other cancers — like which men, if any, should get a PSA blood test to check for prostate cancer, and whether women should start mammograms in their 40s or wait until they're 50.


Also in question is whether doctors will be able to head off another looming controversy: Just which smokers and ex-smokers should get a pricey CT scan that can detect lung cancer but also is prone to false alarms? A recent study found the scans could save some lives. But guidelines aren't due out until early next year that would decide who is at enough risk to outweigh the test's potential harm — such as a risky, invasive biopsy to tell if a suspicious spot is cancer or just an old smoking scar.

Other cancers such as breast cancer and the effectiveness of mammograms also have come into question.


Questions surrounding cancer screening isn't new. Just last month, reported that the United States Preventive Services Task Force released a controversial statement suggesting that the P.S.A. test — a test widely used to assess prostate health in men — does not really predict cancer and often leads to additional tests and treatments that needlessly cause pain and impotence in many healthy men.


These particular cancer screening reassessments are particularly relevant to African-Americans given our cancer rates and heightened risk of death due to the disease. According to the National Cancer Institute although cancer deaths have declined for both whites and African-Americans, the Black community continue to suffer the greatest burden for each of the most common types of cancer; white women have the highest incidence rate for breast cancer, although African-American women are most likely to die from the disease; and Black men have the highest incidence rate for prostate cancer and are more than twice as likely as white men to die of the disease.

 (Photo: Rick Gershon/Getty Images)