Personalizing guideline-driven cancer screening

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Reports of cancer date back thousands of years to Egyptian texts. Its existence baffled scientists until the 1950s, when Watson, Crick, and Franklin discovered the structure of DNA, laying the groundwork for identifying the genetic pathways leading to cancer. Currently, cancer is a leading global cause of death and the second leading cause of death in the United States.1,2

In an effort to curtail cancer and its related morbidity and mortality, population-based screening programs have been implemented with tests that identify precancerous lesions and, preferably, early-stage rather than late-stage cancer.

Screening for cancer can lead to early diagnosis and prevent death from cancer, but the topic continues to provoke controversy.


In a commentary in the March 2019 Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, Kim et al3 argued that cancer screening is not very effective and that we need to find the balance between the potential benefit and harm.

Using data from the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) and various studies, the authors showed that although screening can prevent some deaths from breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer, at least 3 times as many people who are screened still die of those diseases. Given that screening does not eliminate all cancer deaths, has not been definitely shown to decrease the all-cause mortality rate, and has the potential to harm through false-positive results, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment, the authors questioned the utility of screening and encouraged us to discuss the benefits and harms with our patients.

In view of the apparently meager benefit, the USPSTF has relaxed its recommendations for screening for breast and prostate cancer in average-risk populations in recent years, a move that has evoked strong reactions from some clinicians. Proponents of screening argue that preventing late-stage cancers can save money, as the direct and indirect costs of morbidity associated with late-stage cancers are substantial, and that patients prefer screening when a test is available. Current models of screening efficacy do not take these factors into account.4

Kim et al, in defending the USPSTF’s position, suggested that the motivation for aggressive testing may be a belief that no harm is greater than the benefit of saving a life. They illustrated this through a Swiftian “modest proposal,” ie, universal prophylactic organectomy to prevent cancer. This hypothetical extreme measure would nearly eliminate the risk of cancer in the removed organs and prevent overdiagnosis and overtreatment of malignancies, but at substantial harm and cost.

In response to this proposal, we would like to point out the alternative extreme: stop all cancer screening programs. The pendulum would swing from what was previously considered a benefit—cancer prevention—to a harm, ie, cancer.

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