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Change in cancer-screening guidelines

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KAI RYSSDAL: Earlier this week, a federal panel said most women in their 40s don’t need to get mammograms. Today, a physicians group said screenings for cervical cancer can start later and be done less frequently. As the Senate gets set to vote on health care tomorrow night, both of these recommendations seem to be medicine by the numbers.

As Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

Nancy Marshall Genzer: For years, our medical system focused on the individual. The thinking was, even if only one life was saved, everyone should get tested. But the new studies show not everyone needs screening. In fact, too much screening can do more harm than good.

Dr. Louise Russell studies preventive care at Rutgers University. She says patients have to change their mind sets. Think about the odds of finding lethal cancer.

Louise Russell: The evidence we have accumulated through these massive screening programs has shown us that many cancers don’t need to be found. We didn’t know that before.

Russell says those cancers would never grow big enough to kill. She says patients need to trust the odds and not get screened if they’re not at increased risk — if they don’t, say, have a family member with cancer.

Doctor Otis Brawley is the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. He disagrees with the mammogram recommendations. He says even if one life in a thousand is saved, it’s worth it.

Otis Brawley: If you have evidence that it saves lives, you can’t hold back this therapy.

A lot of patients feel the same way. They don’t care about the big picture.

Doctor Robert Aronowitz teaches the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. He says it’s hard to change that way of thinking. But people can put themselves in danger. Unnecessary cancer treatment can cause anxiety and even death.

Robert Aronowitz: But unless you see the way the whole system works, the larger picture, I think it’s hard to evaluate the efficacy of individual things.

Aronowitz says that applies to all kinds of preventive treatment — from screenings to drugs that are supposed to prevent disease.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

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