This is just as awkward as it looks. (credit: Selenia Dimension)
In a bracing op-ed published yesterday in the British Medical Journal, researchers questioned the idea that cancer screening “saves lives” as many PSAs for these services promise. Cancer researcher Vinay Prasad and his colleagues warn that cancer screening has “never been shown” to affect general mortality rates, arguing that patients are being over-screened and often misdiagnosed.
The problem they highlight is a common one in the medical field: statistics on how cancer screening affects mortality rates have been widely misunderstood and misreported. Prasad and his colleagues explain that studies show cancer screening can lower mortality rates for people who already have specific diseases such as lung cancer, but the general mortality rate has remained unchanged since the advent of common tests for breast cancer, colon cancer, neuroblastoma, and prostate cancer. In other words, screening may be slightly improving mortality rates for people who have a disease, but screening is not improving mortality overall. As the researchers put it in their op-ed, people are “simply…trading one type of death for another.” More simply: even if you’re screened for cancer, your risk of dying every year remains the same.
This wouldn’t be cause for concern if it weren’t for the fact that cancer screening is expensive for both patients and the healthcare industry. On top of that, screening can itself cause health problems. False positives, which are common, can lead to extreme anxiety, unnecessary treatments, and even death.