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Cancer Screening, Is It Really All It's Cracked Up To Be?

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Late last month, a New York Times article about cancer screening started a media firestorm when it quoted an American Cancer Society (ACS) spokesperson saying they’d overstated the benefits of detecting many cancers with screenings. Now two of the most reliable screenings—Pap smears for cervical cancer and colonscopies for colon cancer—may be reason for continuing the debate over screening.

It all began in late October when the lengthy New York Times piece quoted Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for ACS, saying the organization was working on an official statement for their website, cancer.org, for early next year about breast and prostate screenings.

“We don't want people to panic,”' said Brawley, “But I'm admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated.”

The firestorm’s kindling was an analysis in that week’s Journal of American Medical Association in which authors outlined flaws in the current screening systems and called for new approaches.

The study’s lead author, Laura Esserman, MD, a breast cancer surgeon at the University of California San Franscisco Medical Center said, “Screening has value, but we need to understand what it can and cannot do. Part of the problem is that we’ve been too worried about keeping the message simple.”

Following the NYT’s piece, ACS CEO, Dr. John Seffrin, posted this mesage on the organizations web site attempting to ease public confusion about cancer screenings. He wrote: “We encourage women at average risk to get mammograms at age 40, to get Pap tests as soon as they are sexually active or no later than age 21, and both men and women at average risk to get screened for colon cancer starting at age 50.”

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