Study reveals huge overdiagnosis of cancer causing unnecessary treatment and suffering

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
Tags: cancer, overdiagnosis, health news

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(NaturalNews) Imagine being told your imaging tests are back and there's bad news. You have cancer. To save your life, your doctor says, you must submit to surgery, chemo, radiation and a host of additional tests and prescription drugs. Of course, there's no guarantee the malignancy will be totally stopped or that the cancer treatment won't cause both immediate and long-term health consequences.

Now imagine the same scenario -- only it turns out the tests were misinterpreted and you really didn't have any sort of life-threatening cancer in the first place. This goof-up must be extremely rare, right? After all, in the high tech world of modern day mainstream medicine, dangerous malignant tumors are accurately spotted, correct?


In fact, research just published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggests the overdiagnosis of cancer is nothing less than a large and growing problem in the US. Study authors H. Gilbert Welch, M.D., and William Black, M.D., of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vermont, and the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, conclude it's time for this phenomenon to be faced head-on with the development of clinical and research strategies to quantify, recognize, and deal with cancer overdiagnosis.

So just how big a problem are we talking about? Dr. Welch and Dr. Black used data from large randomized screening trials to estimate the extent of overdiagnosis and their findings are nothing less that shocking. They found that about 25% of breast cancers detected on mammograms and about 60% of prostate cancers detected with prostate-specific antigen (PSA) tests could represent overdiagnosis..

And when it comes to lung cancer screening with chest x-rays and sputum tests, they estimate about half of the "cancers" detected are really cases of overdiagnosis. What's more, CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) often detects abnormalities outside the colon that can lead to more tests and a possible overdiagnosis of colon cancer, too.

The researchers pointed out several ways to address the problem of overdiagnosis. For starters, they suggested educating patients about the risks and benefits involved with early detection. Another strategy: raising the threshold at which screening test results are labeled 'abnormal' and treatment is needed.

This is already happening in some cases. For example, so many small lung nodules are detected on CT scans that it is now becoming more common for physicians to ignore many of these small abnormalities as just that -- small abnormalities -- instead of rushing into this-looks-like-cancer-let's-treat-it-aggressively mode.

In an editorial accompanying the report by Dr. Black and Dr. Welch, Laura Esserman, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and Ian Thompson of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, agreed that addressing the problem of cancer overdiagnosis is critically important.

"What we need now in the field of cancer is the coming together of physicians and scientists of all disciplines to reduce the burden of cancer death AND cancer diagnosis," they wrote. "We must advocate for and demand innovation in diagnosis and management, fueled by science, harnessing modeling, molecular, and immunology tools to address this problem."

NaturalNews has previously reported on research into cancer overdiagnosis, which is particularly rampant with prostate cancer. In fact, PSA testing has resulted in over a million additional men being overdiagnosed with prostate cancer and subjected to treatment they didn't need (

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