Rethinking Healthcare

Save the ta-tas from unnecessary surgery

Posting in Cancer

Scientists told women that they can forego tests that might result in false positives, unnecessary biopsies and the lopping-off of body parts with no good effect. That's good news except on days when politics rules over science.

I am often criticized at ZDNet Healthcare for writing too often about politics. Unfortunately it's a political season in healthcare.

So long as it is we're not safe anywhere, not even when getting good news.  (Picture from Wikimedia.)

At issue is a recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that women don't need annual screens for breast cancer until age 50, not 40.

The new directive is clear -- getting regular screens before 50 is up to you. So if you have a family history of breast cancer, especially if you have lost a close relative to the disease, you might want to keep up with the regular screenings.

This is a scientific study. "Screening biennially maintained an average of 81% (range across strategies and models, 67% to 99%) of the benefit of annual screening with almost half the number of false-positive results."

Let me repeat the last. Almost half the number of false-positive results. Ever get a false positive on a cancer test? You don't want one.

The panel's other recommendation was also bound to be controversial. All those self exams women have been doing? It has no net benefit and can actually do harm.

The reason? Over-diagnosis. Followed by over-treatment. According to the journal Cancer Causes & Control, 30-42% of diagnoses for invasive breast cancer are wrong. Also, breast cancer is not always deadly. So save the ta-tas, and double-check the invasiveness of a cancer before cutting off the breast.

Pretty good news, right? Not in this political season.

Rationing, cries Fox News. False economy, writes the Seattle Times. "What if screening saved your life?" demands Lynne Varner. Well, what if they took your breast for no good reason? There are risks both way, and the scientists say the risks of zealousness are greater than those from relaxing.

Naturally the politicians' knees jerked. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sibelius said today the government's policies have not changed. And they haven't. The panel didn't suggest they should. It said individuals should choose what they should do. The report did not speak to the government at all.

Instead, a group of scientists told women that they can choose to forego tests that might result in false positives, unnecessary biopsies and the lopping-off of body parts with no good effect.

That's good news. But not on a day when politics rules over science.

Oh, and if you insist on regular self-exams, have a loved one help. Ask nicely and he'll be glad to.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure