Is Cancer Being Overdiagnosed?

"The authors went back only 30 years in SEER [Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results] data in their selective effort to make it appear as if breast cancer screening was a major cause of over-diagnosis," said Dr. Daniel B. Kopans, a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Breast Imaging Division at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Kopans admits that with his specialty, he would obviously be a proponent of better imaging.

But, he adds, "There is no question, that there are cancers that are indolent, and may not kill the individual. This has been known for decades."

"The death rate from breast cancer has decreased in the United States by 30 percent, predominantly, due to mammography screening. This is 15-20,000 lives saved each year. The effort to reduce screening will mean that women will die unnecessarily," Kopans said.

Kopans and other doctors interviewed by ABC News pointed out that Welch has published similar arguments before, and wrote a book in 2004 titled "Should I Be Tested for Cancer?: Maybe Not and Here's Why."

Even the journal in which the article was published has drawn critiques. Despite its name, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute is not affiliated with the National Cancer Institute. Since the 1990s, it has been owned and operated by Oxford University Press.

Still, Dr. Otis W. Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, and other high-profile cancer researchers say Welch has a compelling argument.

Some Say it is Time to Rethink Tumors "Our definition of cancer has to progress if we are truly going to help people," said Brawley. "Some medical specialties such as urology have been slower than others to realize this need. The fact that many have not viewed this as a legitimate problem has actually impeded scientific progress."

Dr. Susan Love, president of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, agreed.

"This is not only true but is in sync with all the recent science suggesting that it is not just the mutated cell that leads to cancer, but it also needs to be in a micro- and probably macro-environment that will egg it [the tumor] on," said Love.

Welch agrees that he's not the first to recognize that statistics prove some portion of cancers would be non-lethal and slow-growing. But he argues medicine in the United States is so focused on screening that now some people are suffering needless harm with chemotherapy and other treatments.

"People have been aware of this theoretical problem for many years," said Welch. "But what's happened recently is that all of a sudden what was a theoretical concern has become a very real problem."

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