The Washington Post

Some cancer screenings can confuse patients rather than clarify their health


Some tests for cancer aren’t necessary. (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)
Get these screenings

●The screening for cervical cancer, a Pap smear, gets the highest rating, and is recommended for women ages 21 to 65. Women 21 to 30 should get the Pap every three years; those 30 to 65 can go five years between Pap tests if they’ve had HPV testing.Younger women should skip the screening because the cancer is uncommon before then and the tests are not accurate for this age group. Women older than 65 don’t need to be tested provided they had regular screenings in their younger years.

●The screenings for colon cancer get the top rating for people ages 50 to 75. This can be standard colonoscopy — not virtual colonoscopy — every 10 years; sigmoidoscopy every five years plus the fecal occult blood test every three years, or the FOBT every year. Screening is less valuable for people 76 to 85; it receives a low score for people 86 and older and the lowest possible score for people 49 and younger. Younger people should consider testing only if they are at high risk, because the cancer is uncommon before age 50.

●Mammography for breast cancer every two years for women age 50 to 74 gets Consumer Reports’ second-highest rating. Women in their 40s and those 75 and older should talk with their doctor to see whether the 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:

●Screening for ovarian cancer — via a transvaginal ultrasound or the CA-125 blood test, which measures a protein possibly associated with ovarian cancer — gets the lowest rating for women of all ages, because the tests are not very effective. Women don’t need to be tested unless they are at high risk.

●The screening for pancreatic cancer, which is done via genetic tests or imaging tests of the abdomen, gets the lowest rating for adults of all ages. People don’t need the test 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 the lowest rating for men of all ages. Most men don’t need the screening, which is done by a physical exam, unless they are at high risk, because most cancers found without screening are curable.

Questions you should ask

Before undergoing any cancer screening, patients should ask their doctors questions such as: If the test results are positive, will it save my life? Am I at higher risk for cancer than the average person? If so, why? How often does this test provide falsely reassuring results? Are any other tests just as good? If the results are positive, what’s next?

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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