Consumer Reports recently shone a light on oversold cancer screenings that might confuse rather than clarify. The report evaluates 11 cancer screenings, finding that eight should be avoided.
Screening tests for cervical, colon, and breast cancers are the most effective tests available, according to Consumer Reports’ first ratings of cancer-screening tests. But most people shouldn’t waste their time on screenings for bladder, lung, oral, ovarian, prostate, pancreatic, skin, and testicular cancers. The ratings are based mainly on evidence-based reviews from the US Preventive Services Task Force, an independent group supported by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Research suggests that even doctors don’t always agree on which screenings are necessary. When Consumer Reports sought information on the percentages of patients who are screened for colon cancer, it found striking variations among medical groups. In Massachusetts, for example, where there are 150 medical groups, the lowest group rate for colon-cancer screening was 47 percent while the highest was just about double that figure, 95 percent.
Get these screenings
Consumer Reports recommends three screenings. The highlights below represent a brief synopsis of the contents of the report.
The screening for cervical cancer gets Consumer Reports’ highest score, and is recommended for women age 21-65. Women under 21 should skip the screening, a Pap smear, because the cancer is uncommon before then and the tests are not accurate for this age group.
The screening for colon cancer gets Consumer Reports’ top score for people ages 50-75. Screening, however, is less valuable for people 76-85. Colon cancer screening receives a low score for people 86 and older and the lowest score for people 49 and younger. Younger people should consider testing only if they are at high risk because colon cancer is uncommon before age 50.
The screening for breast cancer gets Consumer Reports’ second-highest score for women 50-74. But women in their 40s or those 75 and older should talk with their doctors to see whether benefits outweigh the harm based on their risk factors.
Avoid these screenings
Consumer Reports highlighted eight cancer screenings that people at low risk should avoid, including the following three screenings which received Consumer Reports’ lowest rating.
The screening for ovarian cancer gets Consumer Reports’ lowest rating for women of all ages, because the screening tests are not very effective. Women don’t need to be tested unless they are at high risk. There are two tests: a transvaginal ultrasound or a blood test that measures a protein possibly associated with ovarian cancer.
The screening for pancreatic cancer gets Consumer Reports’ lowest rating for adults of all ages. People don’t need the test (genetic tests or imaging tests of the abdomen) unless they are at high risk, because no test is likely to detect the disease at a curable stage.
The screening for testicular cancer gets Consumer Reports’ lowest rating for men of all ages. Most men don’t need the screening, a physical exam, unless they are at high risk, because most cancers found without screening are curable.
Questions you should ask
Consumer Reports recommends that patients ask their doctors a series of questions before undergoing any cancer screening, such as the following: If the test results are positive, will it save my life? Am I at higher risk for cancer than the average person, and if so, why? How often does it provide falsely reassuring results? Are any other tests just as good? And, if the results are positive, what’s next?