There’s no question that tests to detect cancer before it causes any problems can save lives. But such tests can also cause harm through overdiagnosis and overtreatment. A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that the majority of people aren’t informed by their doctors that early warning cancer tests may detect slow-growing, or no-growing, cancers that will never cause symptoms or affect health. Undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation for such cancers provides no benefits and definite harms. The researchers found that only 9.5% of people were informed by their doctors of the risk of overdiagnosis and possible overtreatment. Compare that to 80% who said they wanted to be informed of the possible harms of screening before having a screening test. Informing patients about the risks of screening isn’t easy to do in a brief office visit. It’s complicated information. And the researchers suggest that many doctors don’t have a good grip on relative benefits and harms of screening.
Tests and procedures
Proposed recommendations from the influential U.S. Preventive Services Task Force call for annual CT scans for some current and former smokers. Implementing these recommendations could prevent an estimated 20,000 deaths per year from lung cancer. The task force suggests annual testing for men and women between the ages of 55 and 79 years who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or the equivalent, such as two packs a day for 15 years or three packs a day for 10 years. This includes current smokers and those who quit within the previous 15 years. According to the draft recommendations, which were published today in the Annals of Internal Medicine, the benefits of annual checks in this group outweighs the risks. According to the Task Force recommendations, not all smokers or former smokers should undergo yearly CT scans. This group includes smokers or former smokers who are younger than 55 or older than 79, who smoked less or less often than a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years or the equivalent, who quit smoking 15 or more years ago, or who are too sick or frail to undergo treatment for lung cancer. These draft recommendations have been posted for public comment until August 26, 2013.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s revelation yesterday that he had secretly undergone weight-loss surgery back in February shouldn’t come as a big surprise. He has been publicly (and privately) struggling with his weight for years and fits the profile of a good candidate for this kind of operation. In general, weight-loss surgery is appropriate for people with a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or higher, as well as for those with a BMI of 35 to 39.9 and a severe, treatment-resistant medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, and sleep apnea, who had tried to lose weight other ways. Christie had a BMI of at least 41. He also acknowledged trying to lose weight many times, using different weight loss programs. He underwent laparoscopic gastric banding, also known as lap banding. There are also two other types of weight-loss surgery, gastric bypass and the gastric sleeve procedure.
Living through the physical and emotional toll of breast cancer is so traumatic that some women can’t bear the thought of doing it again. That’s why a growing number of women who have already been diagnosed with cancer in one breast are taking the drastic measure of having both breasts removed (a procedure called prophylactic mastectomy). Yet a University of Michigan study presented last week at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s Quality Care Symposium showed that nearly three-quarters of women who had this procedure were actually at very low risk of developing cancer in the healthy breast. In other words, many women are unnecessarily exposing themselves to the potential risks of a double mastectomy—including pain, infection, and scarring. The new study suggests that more and better information about breast cancer recurrence—and the risks and benefits of prophylactic mastectomy—are needed as women consider this procedure.
Researchers at Kansas State University have developed a blood test that rapidly detects breast cancer (as well as non-small cell lung cancer) in very early stages, long before symptoms appear or the cancer can be seen by other methods. The experimental test identifies enzyme patterns that differ from one type of cancer to another. According to the researchers, the test can detect very early breast cancers (stages 0 and 1), as well as early lung cancers (stages 1 and 2), within an hour, with 95% accuracy. However, they tested only 32 participants with various stages of breast or lung cancer, as well as 12 people without cancer. Whether finding cancer that early makes a difference for treatment and survival remains to be seen.
For years researchers have been trying to weigh the benefits of finding early breast cancers against the risks related to false positives (the spots that turn out to be harmless). This work has sparked some bitter public debates and confusion for women over flip-flopping recommendations. The latest salvo comes from a review of the results of mammograms among more than 12 million women in 18 European countries. The results support the idea that routine mammograms can prevent deaths from breast cancer without causing undue harm. The findings support the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s recommendation that women between the ages of 50 and 74 have a mammogram every other year. Women at higher risk of developing breast cancer may need mammograms earlier than age 50, or more often than every other year.
A heart attack (more formally known as myocardial infarction) isn’t always an instantly recognizable event. Severe chest pain often has nothing to do with the heart or blood vessels. Some heart attacks are so small they pass almost unnoticed, written off as indigestion or the flu. Others are major catastrophes, causing death or long-lasting disability. A new blood test may help speed the diagnosis. This is important, because the sooner a heart attack is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. The sooner treatment begins, the more heart muscle can be saved. The new test can detect very small amounts of troponin in the blood. This protein is one of the chemical signatures of dying heart cells. This new test could let doctors identify small heart attacks that would otherwise go undiagnosed, or identify heart attacks earlier—and begin treatment earlier.
For some people with depression that isn’t alleviated by medication or talk therapy, a relatively new option that uses magnetic fields to stimulate part of the brain may help. Called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), it was approved by the FDA in 2008. Although more and more centers are beginning to use transcranial magnetic stimulation, it still isn’t widely available. Transcranial magnetic stimulation directs a series of strong magnetic pulses into the brain. These pulses create a weak electrical current that can increase or decrease activity in specific parts of the brain. In two large studies, rTMS improved depression in 14% of people who underwent it, compared to 5% who underwent sham, treatment. The cost can range from $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the clinic and how many sessions are needed. Insurance may not cover the cost of treatment.
Yesterday’s announcement that men should not get routine PSA tests to check for hidden prostate cancer is sure to spark controversy for months to come. But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) made the right decision. On the surface, rejecting the use of a simple blood test that can detect cancer in its early and still-treatable stage sounds foolish. Cynics have been saying it is the handiwork of a group concerned more about health-care rationing and cutting costs than about health. The decision is wise, not foolish, and will improve men’s health, not harm it. The word “cancer” usually brings to mind images of a fast-growing cluster of cells that, without aggressive treatment, will invade other parts of the body, damage health, and potentially kill. That certainly describes many cancers. But not most prostate cancers. Most of the time, prostate cancer is sloth-like. It tends to grow slowly and remain confined to the prostate gland, with many men never knowing during their entire lives that a cancer was present. These slow-growing prostate cancers cause no symptoms and never threaten health or longevity. That means many men with prostate “cancer” never need treatment.
A simple blood test to check seemingly healthy men for hidden prostate cancer does more harm than good and shouldn’t be part of routine medical care. That’s the long-awaited final recommendation from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), published today in Annals of Internal Medicine. About half of men over age 40 get this test as part of a regular checkup. It measures the amount of a protein called prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, in the bloodstream. An above-normal PSA level can signal hidden prostate cancer. But it can also be a sign of prostate infection, an enlarged prostate, and other problems. Hunting for hidden disease in the absence of any outward signs or symptoms is called screening. The task force says that for every 1,000 men who have routine PSA tests, 0 to 1 deaths from prostate cancer will be prevented. But that is offset by 3 serious cardiovascular deaths due to treatment, along with 47 men who will live with treatment-related erectile dysfunction or incontinence.