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Cancer Screening Tests Could Do More Harm Than Good: Reader's Digest April Cover Story

Article Explores Overtreatment in America, Growing Group of Scientists Believe Time to Rethink Our Approach to Cancer Screening

April Issue Hits Newsstands March 17th

PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y., March 17 /PRNewswire/ -- The April issue of Reader's Digest, which hits newsstands March 17th, delves into the controversial topic of whether or not patients should choose to be screened for cancer, putting forward the bold notion that popular cancer screening tests may cause more harm than good.

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"Screening for cancer means that tens of thousands of patients who never would have become sick are diagnosed with this disease," says H. Gilbert Welch, MD, co-director of the Outcomes Group at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vermont, and a leading expert in cancer screening. "Once they're diagnosed, almost everybody gets treated - and we know that treatment can cause harm."

The article goes on to say that this view "stands in stark contrast to the message being put out by groups like the American Cancer Society and even the federal government, which say that finding and treating tumors as early as possible is the surest way to avoid a cancer death. But a growing group of scientific heretics -- published in highly respected medical journals working at some of the most august institutions -- strongly believe that it's time to rethink our whole approach to cancer screening."

"What's Wrong with Cancer Tests," the Reader's Digest cover story written by Shannon Brownlee, author of Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer, examines the screening tests associated with colon, breast, and prostate cancer. Brownlee looks at whether there is too much unnecessary screening that holds too many risks.

Not only do patients sometimes get seriously hurt by these tests or the treatments that can follow but there is also a huge financial burden. Brownlee says in the article that "unnecessary therapies for cancer are a tremendous strain on our health care budget, already strained to breaking point."

According to the article, "only one cancer screening test, the venerable Pap smear, has truly slashed the risk of death. Between 1955 and 1992, according to the American Cancer Society, Pap smears cut the death rate for cervical cancer by 74 percent, and deaths have continued to decline each year. But no other test has had such a powerful effect."

Revealing statistics illustrate the way some screening tests fall short:

  • There is little evidence that PSA tests to detect prostate cancer have had a significant impact in reducing deaths. A group of men in Seattle had 5 times more PSA testing than a group of men in Connecticut but were just as likely to die of prostate cancer, according to research done by Harvard professor Michael Barry, which was published in the British Medical Journal.
  • Mammograms also offer a smaller benefit than many patients and doctors assume. A 60-year-old who gets regular mammograms shaves her risk of dying of the disease in the next decade from 7 per 1,000 to 6 per 1,000.

"Prostate screening seems to make sense," says Nortin M. Hadler, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in Overtreated America. "If it only worked."

The piece concludes by noting "many experts believe the decision to get screened should rest on an individual's values and his or her ability to handle uncertainty. Says Dr. William C. Black, MD, a professor of radiology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, "We have come to fear dying from disease more than dying at the hands of overzealous doctors."

Reader's Digest reaches nearly 40 million readers each month in the United States and twice as many worldwide. Its U.S. website is The magazine is published in 50 editions and 21 languages, and reaches readers in more than 60 countries. It is the flagship of The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., a global publisher and direct marketer of products that inform, entertain and inspire people of all ages and cultures around the world. Global headquarters are in Pleasantville, N.Y.

SOURCE Reader's Digest
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