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Counter-Intuitive Results: Several Cancer Screening Tests Don’t Improve Health Outcomes

Nearly forty years ago, President Richard Nixon famously declared a “War on Cancer” by signing the National Cancer Act of 1971. Like the Manhattan Project, the Apollo program that was then landing men on the Moon, and the ongoing (and eventually successful) World Health Organization-led initiative to eradicate smallpox from the face of the Earth, the “War on Cancer” was envisioned as a massive, all-out research and treatment effort. We would bomb cancer into submission with powerful regimens of chemotherapy, experts promised, or, failing that, we would invest in early detection of cancers so that they could be more easily cured at earlier stages.

It was in the spirit of the latter that the National Cancer Institute launched the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer (PLCO) Screening trial in 1992. This massive study, which eventually enrolled more than 150,000 men and women between age 55 and 74, was designed to test the widespread belief that screening and early detection of the most common cancers could improve morbidity and mortality in the long term. Not a few influential voices suggested that the many millions of dollars invested in running the trial might be better spent on programs to increase the use of these obviously-effective tests in clinical practice.

They were wrong. As of now, the PLCO study is 0-for-2. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Prepared Patient Forum: What It Takes Blog*

Blogger Leaves Post-Mortem Message After Losing His Battle With Cancer

There is a really moving story on about a blogger who left a post mortem message on his blog after his battle with cancer. I’ve seen many blogs which just became archives after the blogger (mainly cancer patients) passed away. This is the first time in my experience when the blogger made this transition himself.

“Here it is. I’m dead,” read the last internet post of Derek K. Miller, who died last week after more than four years of blogging about his struggle with colorectal cancer.

“In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote — the first part of the process of turning this from an active website to an archive,” he wrote on his blog,

*This blog post was originally published at ScienceRoll*

Colon Cancer Screening: Guideline Truths And Myths

Colon cancer screening has a particular personal interest for me — one of my colleagues in residency training had her father die of colon cancer when she was a teenager.

No one should lose a loved one to a disease that, when caught early, is often treatable. But for both men and women, colon cancer is the third most common cancer behind lung cancer and prostate cancer in men, and behind lung cancer and breast cancer in women, it’s the second most lethal.

The problem is that patients are often confused about which test is the right one. Is it simply a stool test? Flexible sigmoidoscopy? Colonoscopy? Virtual colonoscopy? Isn’t there just a blood test that can be done? (No.)

In simple terms, this is what you need to know:

All men and women age 50 and older should be screened for colon cancer. Even if you feel healthy and well and have no family history, it must be done. Note that Oprah’s doctor, Dr. Oz, arguably a very health-conscious individual learned that he had a colon polyp at age 50 after a screening test. Left undetected, it could have cut his life short. This wake-up call caused him to abort his original second season premier on weight loss and instead show the country why colon cancer screening matters. He admitted that if it wasn’t for the show and the need to demonstrate the importance of screening to America, he would have delayed having any test done.

The least invasive test is a stool test. If it is to screen for colon cancer, then the test is done at home and NOT in the doctor’s office. Either the fecal occult blood test (FOBT) or the fecal immunochemical test (FIT) are available to screen for unseen microscopic blood that could be a sign of a colon polyp or cancer. Research shows that when a stool test is done annually, the risk of dying from colon cancer can fall by 15 to 33 percent. If you don’t want any fiber optic cameras in your rectum and lower colon, this is the test for you. You must do it annually.

The next two tests are similar but often confused: The flexible sigmoidoscopy and the colonoscopy. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

Most Primary Care Doctors Using Wrong Colon Cancer Screening Test

A recent article found that primary care doctors the United States are providing sub-standard care when it comes to colon cancer screening.

In the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found that 25% of primary care doctors used in-office stool testing to screen for colon cancer. Specifically, doctors do a rectal exam and then swipe the rectal contents off their gloves onto a stool-testing card. A positive test result indicates the presence of blood, which can be invisible to the naked eye. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Saving Money and Surviving the Healthcare Crisis*

Dr. LaPook’s Colonoscopy: Screening Tests Save Lives

Last night, President Obama made a pitch for preventive care in his address to a joint session of Congress on health care:

“And insurance companies will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies – because there’s no reason we shouldn’t be catching diseases like breast cancer and colon cancer before they get worse. That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives.”

As a doctor who has held the hands of patients dying from totally preventable illnesses, I couldn’t agree more. The largest number of deaths in the United States are caused by two preventable causes – tobacco smoking and
high blood pressure - killing an estimated 467,000 and 395,000 people respectively in 2005. The list goes on and on, including obesity, physical inactivity, and poor diet.

When I was working in the emergency room as a medical resident, it was heartbreaking to see a patient with poor routine medical care roll into the emergency room with a devastating stroke that could have easily been averted with regular office visits and blood pressure medication – both relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of caring for the stricken patient.

We’re not preventing enough deaths by the types of cancer screening tests mentioned by President Obama. One reason is the technology is still not good enough. We need to develop better screening tests that pick up problems early but don’t lead to an unacceptable number of unnecessary biopsies, procedures, and further tests. And
not enough patients are screened. Only about about 60 percent of women get mammograms and about 50 percent of men and women get routine colonoscopies.

Lack of insurance coverage is certainly a big reason why some patients don’t undergo screening. Another reason is patient fear and misunderstanding. In order to educate the public about the risks of colon cancer and the benefits of screening exams, Katie Couric underwent a colonoscopy on national television in March, 2000. Three years later, researchers at the University of Michigan found that colonoscopy rates jumped by 20 percent across the country following Katie’s procedure, calling the rise the
“Katie Couric Effect.”

It’s almost 10 years later and we’re still not screening enough patients. Although the death rate from colon cancer has dropped in recent years – likely mostly because of screening efforts – colorectal cancer still strikes almost 150,000 Americans every year and kills about 50,000.

As a gastroenterologist, I have seen patients’ lives saved by the removal of polyps and early cancers found by colonoscopy. I have also taken care of patients whose colon cancers were found too late to save them. Over the years, I must have heard every excuse for ducking a colonoscopy. The top four (and my answers):

  • I have no symptoms (most colon cancers start small and have no symptoms until they grow larger.)
  • I have no family history of colon cancer (that’s true in about 70 percent of patients with colon cancer.)
  • I’m afraid it will hurt (that’s why we use sedation and, if needed, anesthesia.)
  • I can’t do the prep (we’ll figure out a way to clean out your colon that you can tolerate.
  • And even if you have a tough night, it sure beats chemotherapy.)For this week’s CBS Doc Dot Com, I follow Katie’s lead and undergo a colonoscopy with cameras rolling in an attempt to remind people that a screening colonoscopy can save your life. I had the benefit of a house call the night before by my office nurse, Debbie Fitzpatrick, who held the video camera and offered advice and encouragement as I had a taste of my own medicine: the colon cleanout solution. The colonoscopy was performed expertly by Dr. Mark B. Pochapin, director of The Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

    For more information about the Jay Monahan Center,click here.

  • For more information about screening for colon cancer, click here.To watch my colonoscopy, click below:

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