When I went through my conventional training in the 1970s, the medical establishment strongly believed that treatment for cancer was “slash and burn.” Unfortunately, it still is. But while we are aggressively focused on cutting, radiating, and poisoning it, we forget about the human being who suffers the consequences of the horrific and cruel treatments.
The medical profession has been holding tightly to the idea that prevention means a slew of regular (every six months or yearly) mammograms, colonoscopies, chest X-rays, Pap smears, and an ever increasing number of diagnostic tests. The truth is these are not methods of preventing anything. They are tests with their own undesirable side effects and dangers that only occasionally serve to find cancers already present. These tests do not prevent cancers; in fact, they may cause some.
The only use for all these tests is screening for early diagnosis of precancerous conditions that we are sure would otherwise spread and cause problems. However, we do not want to go overboard with screening because it may lead us to believe we should remove everything not considered 100 percent normal (and who can tell what is really normal for you?) when most of the time the body heals many abnormalities on its own. We make connections that may never really exist and assumptions based on statistics that may not apply to individual cases.
The only thing I can tell you for sure is that overdoing screening tests as per our overly cautious but misguided doctors leads to too much anxiety for all of us. The fear of being diagnosed with cancer and the panic-filled wait for test results are dangerous stressors and can put us at risk for heart attacks and strokes.
Ironically, no one talks about the downside of testing and early detection because we have all been indoctrinated to think testing saves lives. But what about the side effects of the tests and the dangers of false-positive results and bad outcomes from surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy? The problem with doing an infinite number of tests is that it leads us to believe that testing will prevent cancer, but nothing could be further from the truth. By adhering to this philosophy, we are abdicating our responsibility for taking care of ourselves. We turn over our entire health to strangers who don’t know us and most likely don’t care.
For women, the classic example of over-screening is mammography. In 2010, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended doctors stop doing mammograms on women younger than 50, and that they have them only every two years unless there is a family history or other extenuating circumstances. (This differs greatly from the American Cancer Society’s recommendation for annual mammograms for all women 40 and older.) The backlash to the USPSTF’s unpopular position from the radiologic societies and the many women’s groups sponsored by the booming cancer industry quashed the report. The task force was criticized as though it took away a woman’s right to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
In 2013, a study reported that mammograms were not as safe as most women think. And it wasn’t the first such study. This latest study from decades of research raised the issues of radiation overexposure (increasing risk of cancer), side effects of biopsies done on pretty much any breast lump that you show your doctor (also increasing the risk of cancer by disturbing the architecture of the breast and changing natural killer cell immune response), and the overdiagnosis and inclusion of DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) as a cancer when studies have shown it does not progress, spread, or cause any problems and should not even be considered cancer.
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