By Jessica Shambora
October 21, 2009

“I’m admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated.”

— Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, today in The New York Times. We’re fascinated with this dilemma of modern medicine: Screening for breast and prostate cancers has increased diagnoses but done little to curb fatal cancers. One reason is that some cancers detected during screenings aren’t very dangerous or may even go away on their own. And treatment may do more harm than good.

As a result of these findings, the cancer society plans to add a message to its Website about the risk of overtreating small cancers while missing the deadly kinds. This certainly will be a difficult message to deliver. As one doctor, Peter Albertsen, chief of urology at the University of Connecticut Health Center, is quoted saying: “Politically, it’s almost unacceptable. If you question overdiagnosis in breast cancer, you are against women. If you question overdiagnosis in prostate cancer, you are against men.” Indeed, retreating in the war on cancer sounds downright heretical. But perhaps there’s wisdom in leaving some cancers alone. –Jessica Shambora

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