Major Policy Shift on Cancer Screening Announced

Posted 10/21/09 by Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer, CQ Researcher

The New York Times reported this morning that the American Cancer Society (ACS) is shifting its longtime stance on cancer screening, suggesting now that the benefits of screening people for some common cancers – breast and prostate cancer, in particular – has been overstated.
“We don’t want people to panic, but I’m admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated,” said ACS chief medical officer Otis Brawley. (

ACS’s new stance echoes the comments of some sources I spoke with for the CQ Researcher’s January 16, 2009, report, “Preventing Cancer.”

"It's immoral for surgeons not to tell patients that we [men] all get prostate cancer as we age," said Thomas A. Stamey, a professor emeritus of urology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Stamey, at age 76, said he hadn't been screened for several years. "Do we really want to screen 100,000 men to save 226 from dying of prostate cancer?" he asked. "It's about the same chance of my not driving home safely tonight."
"The media have taken it on ourselves to promote everybody getting screened for everything," believing that's the right public-health message, said medical journalist Shannon Brownlee, author of "Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer". In international comparisons, U.S. survival rates for some cancers — such as a 99 percent five-year survival rate for prostate cancer — "make us look like geniuses," said Brownlee. But "if you're treating a lot of things that didn't need to be treated [in the first place], of course people are going to survive."

Screening doesn't always lengthen lives. In a 2007 study of computed tomography (CT) scanning of current and former smokers, researchers from New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found nearly three times as many lung cancers as predicted but also found that the early detection and treatment "did not lead to a corresponding decrease in advanced lung cancers or a reduction in deaths."