Why You Should(n’t) Get Screened for Cancer

On your list of activities that you need to think twice about, you probably haven’t penciled in cancer screening, but a recent article in the New York Times could have you reaching for the nearest writing utensil. The title of Natasha Singer’s article, In Push for Cancer Screening, Limited Benefits, pretty much says it all.

Exploring why national campaigns promoting regular screenings for numerous types of cancer do not necessarily benefit the general public, she notes that such screenings have not actually been “proven to reduce the death toll from cancer for people without specific symptoms or risk factors.”

Citing the “Check your neck” campaign intended to raise awareness about thyroid cancer, Singer quotes Steven Woloshin, who co-authored Know Your Chances: Understanding Health Statistics with H. Gilbert Welch. Because it kills an estimated 1,600 Americans each year, Woloshin argues that thyroid cancer is actually a rare disease about which few people should worry.

Before co-writing Know Your Chances, Welch published a book of his own, entitled Should I be Tested for Cancer?: Maybe Not and Here’s Why.”

In an April op ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, he takes on prostate cancer screening, arguing against the popular misconception that regular screenings benefit the population as a whole. He cites the fact that this phenomenon leads to more diagnosed cases of smaller or slow-growing cancers that don’t pose the same threat as the prostate cancer behind 3% of deaths for men. This means that patients go through unnecessary treatment for what the author labels “pseudodisease”, thereby suffering such side effects as urinary incontinence and impotence.

Not exactly a walk in the park.

Both articles reference the recently published results destined to clarify the effectiveness of two large, randomized prostate cancer screenings. Since one study is European and the other American, and they contradict one another — the Europeans found that regular prostate cancer screenings saves lives while the Americans didn’t (see video below for details). So, the only thing anyone can be sure about is that nothing is sure, though the European study estimates that, for every life saved through screening, there are 50 men undergoing unnecessary treatment.


Welch doesn’t take a stand on either side of the issue and instead asks that people talk to their doctor about regular cancer screening, in order to get the whole story. He explores this and other issues in Should I Be Tested for Cancer?; a particularly eye-opening chapter explains how to understand cancer statistics and, along the way, attacks the validity of the numbers behind
the “five-year survival rate”.