Does cancer screening save lives?

October 21, 2009 2:48:00 PM PDT
Having information about and screening for cancer can save lives. That is generally an agreed on premise. But like many complexities, it is sometimes a confusing message. A new report questions about cancer screening and what it can or cannot do.

The issue came to light in a newspaper story and it is one that has to do with screening guidelines for cancer.

Many health organizations make recommendations about cancer screenings and there is generally proof that screening catches early cancers which in turn saves lives.

A story in the New York Times reported that the American Cancer Society has concerns on screenings, believing that the benefits of detecting many cancers especially breast and prostate have been overstated.

Dr. Victor Vogel the National Vice President of research for the American Cancer Society took a different tack than what the newspaper stated.

"Now I don't think the benefits have been overstated. But what's happened is sometimes people misinteerprt the fact that screening reduces the risk of dying from cancer. It doesnt emininate the risk," said Dr. Vogel.

If there is public mis-interpretation, it may be because science has raised new questions, as new information is uncovered.

Screening for PSA for example, has previously raised the question whether it may contribute to overtreatment, since some cancer cells may be very slow growing.

Some doctors and scientists are now debating the value of PSA numbers for screening.

And mammography for women at age 40 is recommended by the society and by many organizations. But not all everyone agree it should be done at that age, and even the society does appear to be reconsidering.

"We will have to continue to have that discussion about the relative benefits and risk of screening among women in their 40's but for now the ACS position is that women 40 -49 should continue to have mamography screening," adds Dr. Vogel.

To be clear, nobody changed their recommendations for screening guidelines today. They remain the same as they were yesterday.

Guidelines need to be evidence based and what that means is that there is scientific proof that supports a decision. If the American Cancer Society is considering changing guidelines as reported in the paper, it was not something they were ready to make public themselves.

LINK: American Cancer Society.

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