Analysis of the latest research and extensive expert interviews reveal many cancer tests have been oversold to the general population, and the risks of some, outweigh the benefits.
Tuberculosis specialist Dr. Jeffrey Starke 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. But such levels can scare men into undergoing riskier tests," said Dr. John Santa with Consumer Reports.
Starke did take that risk and says the second biopsy almost killed him.
"I became very, very sick with what is called sepsis, which is a bacterial infection that landed me in the hospital for four days," he said.
No cancer was found in either biopsy.
"Even when prostate cancer is found, it may not become dangerous. And the fact is treatment itself can cause serious side effects," Dr. John Santa said.
Consumer Reports does 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. Those include ones for pancreatic, lung, ovarian or skin cancer, among others.
"However, there are three tests we analyzed that are well worth getting, but it does depend on your age," Dr. Santa said.
Colon-cancer screening is very likely to be beneficial for people ages 50 to 75, and Consumer Reports recommends it. Also recommended are 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. 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," Dr. Santa said.
If you see a mobile clinics offering free cancer screenings, Consumer Reports says, walk away. They say marketing to the consumer leads to unnecessary tests. Instead, talk to your doctor.
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