Gina Kolata has just published a story in the New York Times that is going to create international waves which will be felt for some time.
She reports that the American Cancer Society – a longtime advocate for most cancer screening – “is now saying that the benefits of detecting many cancers, especially breast and prostate, have been overstated”.
She says that the Society is quietly working on a message, to put on its Web site early next year, to emphasise that screening for breast and prostate cancer and certain other cancers can come with a real risk of overtreating many small cancers while missing cancers that are deadly.
“We don’t want people to panic,” said Dr Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the cancer society. “But I’m admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated.”
At one level, you could say that this is not particularly new or exciting. Many people – including leading epidemiologists and public health researchers – have been saying much the same thing for quite a while, even though the message still doesn’t seem to have permeated the mainstream consciousness.
Nor is it particularly contentious that people should be told of the potential harms of screening as well as the potential benefits (although many public health campaigns continue to play up the potential benefits without mentioning the other).
Why this story will make waves is that it’s the American Cancer Society speaking up AND the Society appears to be lumping breast and prostate cancer in the same basket.
It is going to be very interesting to watch how people (ie mammogram advocates and funders, cancer organisations, doctors, the public health brigade and the general public) respond. Watch this space….