Early detection of cancer saves lives—right? Not necessarily. This widely held belief drives many to get unnecessary screenings, according to Consumer Reports. Its just-released analysis of the latest research and extensive expert interviews reveals many cancer screening tests have been oversold to the general population.
For example, mobile clinics offer free prostate-cancer tests that measure PSA levels in the blood. But, Consumer Reports says direct-to-consumer marketing of cancer screenings is contributing to their overuse. And the risks of many cancer screenings, including PSAs for men, outweigh the benefits for most people. Elevated PSA levels don't necessarily mean cancer is present. But such levels can scare men into undergoing riskier tests, such as a biopsy.
That's exactly what happened to Jeffrey Starke, M.D., a tuberculosis specialist. When his PSA levels edged up on two different occasions, his doctor urged him to have biopsies. He says an infection after the second one almost killed him. No cancer was found in either biopsy.
Even when prostate cancer is found it may not become dangerous. And treatment itself can cause serious side effects. Consumer Reports does not recommend PSA tests for most men. And unless you are at high risk, there are other cancer screenings Consumer Reports does not recommend, including ones for pancreatic, lung, ovarian, and skin cancer, among others.
However, there are three tests Consumer Reports analyzed that are well worth getting, depending on your age.
Colon-cancer screening is very likely to be beneficial for people ages 50 to 75.
Mammograms for women ages 50 to 74 are recommended every other year.
Pap smears for women ages 21 to 65 are recommended, too, but only every three years.
Those are guidelines for the general population. If you have a family history or medical factors that put you at higher risk, work with your doctor to determine the cancer screenings you need.