Recent Cancer Screening Changes Leave Many Confused

But experts say science is behind reasoning that testing less is OK

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Nov. 24 (HealthDay News) -- The world of cancer screening has been upended in the past two weeks.

Not only did the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) just raise the age at which it recommends women get their first mammogram from 40 to 50, but the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists (ACOG) decided that adolescents should be spared the inconvenience and possible risks of cervical cancer screening, and wait until they reach the age of 21 for such testing. Both groups also recommended screening less frequently.

Add to that the long-simmering debate on the value of PSA testing for prostate cancer and the fact that both the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American College of Radiology have condemned the new USPSTF recommendations, it's no wonder patients and even experts feel like they are suffering from a bad case of medical whiplash.

Was the timing of the announcements anything more than coincidence? Are the changes a reflection of new science, attempts to influence the current raging health-care debate or just medical business as usual?

The timing, by most accounts, was purely accidental.

"I think it's a coincidence that this [the mammogram recommendation] came out when it did, right in the middle of the health-care reform discussion. It's a good panel, one that was dedicated to getting the right answer to what should be done about this," said Dr. Robert J. Barnet, senior scholar in residence at the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.

Added Dr. Jay Brooks, chairman of hematology/oncology at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge, La: "This is nothing new. Cancer screening guidelines have been changing as more scientific knowledge accumulates."

And much of the new knowledge does suggest that over-screening does happen, often resulting in false-positive results, which lead to more biopsies and more angst. This is true of breast, cervical, prostate and other forms of cancer, experts concur.

"There's appropriate screening and there is the appropriate population that should be getting that screening, and there is the appropriate screening interval," said Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society. "We can violate all of those things."

Meanwhile, false-positive results from mammographies are more common in younger (age 40 to 49) women than in the upper age bracket. And the age cut-offs for screening may be artificial.

"We like to lump people into big decades of life, so the risk of a 40-year-old woman and the risk of a 49-year-old woman [for breast cancer] are different," Brooks noted. "The risk at 40 is much less than the risk at 49."

"Younger women are at higher rates of false-positives, which results in more biopsies, more procedures being done and women getting callbacks for extra mammograms," he added. "This creates anxiety for something that's not anything bad."

Also, there's increasing evidence that some cancers will never turn into anything dangerous and, therefore, don't warrant treatment.

"Our definition of cancer was given to us by German pathologists in the 1840s after they looked at biopsies from autopsy specimens," Brawley explained. "Now, 170 years later, we've progressed in terms of imaging, in terms of medical diagnostics into what I call the genetic and molecular biologic age, but our ability to define cancer has not progressed beyond the light microscope. What we need to be able to do eventually is say that 'this cancer is never going to progress,' it is not going to spread and invade other organs in the body. But right now we don't have the molecular tools to predict their behavior."

"Not only do we need to find small tumors, we need to know more about the biology of those tumors," added Dr. Michael V. Seiden, president and CEO of Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Until those tools are developed, imperfect screening is going to lead to over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatment.

Still, there's no question that the revisions do fit into a larger and rapidly changing health-care picture.