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Why We Overrate the Lifesaving Power of Cancer Tests

According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, you are 240-120 times more likely to be misdiagnosed as a result of a positive PSA test and 80-40 times more likely to get unnecessary surgery or radiation than you are to have your life saved. I mentioned that my physician, trying to persuade me to get the PSA test, said he knew someone whose life it had saved. Many readers also insist that the PSA test saved them or someone they know, and they dismiss the massive evidence of overdiagnosis and overtreatment as irrelevant. See for example comments on Scientific American’s Facebook page. I have gotten similar responses to my posts on mammograms. Celebrities, aided by mass media, have reinforced the public’s belief in the life-saving power of cancer tests. Actor Ben Stiller said last year on the Howard Stern Show that the PSA test “saved my life,” and ABC reporter Amy Robach asserted in 2013 that a mammogram saved her. I understand why many people adamantly reject data exposing the flaws of PSA tests and mammograms. No one wants to think they've endured surgery, radiation or chemotherapy unnecessarily. But for our broken health care system to be fixed, consumers must take a more rational approach to health. I received an email on this issue from science journalist Gary Taubes, renowned for his writings on diet, including the recent bestseller The Case Against Sugar, and other medical topics. I routinely assign my science writing students his 2007 article on the limits of epidemiology. Here are Taubes’s comments:

Read More: Scientific American Blog Network

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