More hype than science behind some cancer screenings

A nurse performs a mammography.

Testing for cancer is big business in the health care industry. But a new report suggests that the industry has exaggerated the benefits of cancer screening.

“We found worrisome examples of screenings at athletic stores, at athletic events, mobile vans, mammogram parties. Folks should not be making decisions about cancer screening tests in settings like that,” says Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center.

The report found that some of the most effective tests get overlooked. Consumer Reports recommends screening for colon, breast, and cervical cancer should be performed more often.

On the flip side, Santa says other cancer tests get hyped by organizations with financial incentives.

“Many of the not very good screening tests, like prostate cancer screening tests and ovarian cancer, are being promoted and sometimes over-sold to the public,” says Santa.

He doesn’t suggest that men avoid prostate tests altogether. Though he cautions that they should know what they’re getting themselves into. Prostate screening can save some lives. But Santa says the treatment will cause many more men to suffer complications, like incontinence and impotence.

Not everyone agrees.

Dr. David Agus is professor of medicine and engineering at the University of Southern California and the author of, "The End of Illness." Much of his research focuses on prostate cancer.

“Countries that screen [for prostate cancer] have half the death rate of countries that don’t,” says Agus. “In the United States, since we started screening, the death rate is down over 45 percent.”

Some of the debate relates to changing perceptions of cancer. According to the report from Consumer Reports, “it is now understood that cancer cells can appear and then disappear on their own, or never spread. Most screening tests don’t discriminate between the harmless and the deadly kinds.”

But Agus views the equation differently. “I don’t think the filter should be at doing the screening. The filter should be at doing the treatment.”

Though a proponent of screenings, Agus agrees that a test shouldn’t automatically lead to treatment.

“We have over a thousand patients in our clinic, for example, with prostate cancer who we’re not treating. We’re just following [them] on regular basis. We call it ‘active surveillance,’” says Agus.

Both doctors recommend patients do some research, become informed consumers, and then discuss the pros and cons of screenings and treatments directly with their physicians.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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