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Some cancer screening unnecessary: Consumer Reports health analysis

January 30, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
A new Consumer Reports analysis of the latest research and extensive expert interviews suggests some cancer screening tests may be unnecessary, and that the risks of a few may even outweigh the benefits.

Dr. Jeffrey Starke, a tuberculosis specialist, became a patient himself when his PSA levels, a marker for prostate cancer, edged up slightly on two different occasions. Each time his doctor urged a biopsy.

"Elevated PSA levels don't necessarily mean cancer is present," said Dr. John Santa, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. "But such levels can scare men into undergoing riskier tests."

Starke did take that risk and says the second biopsy almost killed him.

"I became very, very sick with what's called sepsis, which is a bacterial infection that landed me in the hospital for about four days," said Starke.

No cancer was found in either biopsy.

"Even when prostate cancer is found, it may not become dangerous," said Santa. "And the fact is treatment itself can cause serious side effects."

Consumer Reports experts do not recommend PSA tests for most men, as the latest evidence shows this test does not significantly reduce deaths.

And unless you are at high risk, there are other cancer screenings Consumer Reports does not recommend, including ones for pancreatic, lung, ovarian or skin cancers, among others.

"However, there are three tests we analyzed that are well worth getting, but it does depend on your age," said Santa.

Colon-cancer screening is very likely to be beneficial for people ages 50 to 75. And Consumer Reports recommends it. Also recommended: mammograms for women ages 50 to 74 every other year; and Pap smears for women ages 21 to 65, but only every three years.

"These are guidelines for the general population," said Santa. "If you have a family history or medical factors that put you at higher risk, work with your doctor to determine the cancer screenings you need and when to have them."

Consumer Reports advises you to think twice when you're considering using a mobile clinic offering free screenings. Consumer Reports experts believe those free screenings can often lead to unnecessary testing. When in doubt, have a conversation with your doctor about what tests you need.


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