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Cancer Screenings Common but not Necessary for Seniors

Update Date: Aug 19, 2014 11:13 AM EDT

Cancer screenings can be vital in preventing premature deaths and high medical costs. However, even though screenings can save lives, they are not always effective for older people who are not expected to live another decade. According to a new study, cancer screenings are common but not beneficial for seniors with a short life expectancy.

"Across the U.S., there seems to be a lot of cancer screening in patients who have a short life expectancy," said lead researcher Dr. Ronald Chen, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported by HealthDay. "For patients who have a limited life expectancy, cancer screening might cause them more harm than benefit. Most guidelines recommend that we stop screening for these cancers when the patient has a short life expectancy. There is no evidence that cancer screening helps patients who have less than 10 years to live."

In this study, the researchers examined data taken from the U.S. National Health Interview Survey from 2000 to 2010. Data included more than 27,000 people aged 65 and older who were screened for different cancers. The participants were ranked based on their risk of dying in less than 10 years.

Overall, the cancer screening rates for all patients were 64 percent for prostate cancer, 63 percent for breast cancer, 57 percent for cervical cancer and 47 percent for colon cancer. In the group of people with the highest risk of death, 31 to 55 percent of them were screened for cancer. The most common cancer screening for men in this group was prostate cancer at 55 percent. For women, 34 to 56 percent of them were given a Pap test.

Chen stated that screenings for seniors who have a high risk of death could do more harm than good. Screenings can lead to invasive procedures and treatments that most likely will not affect the older individuals' lifespans. However, the screenings could worsen their end of life quality.

"While there has been enthusiasm about cancer screening, there is now increased recognition that screening may not be as effective as we had hoped and, for some patients, it may not be beneficial at all," commented Dr. Cary Gross, a professor of medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine who wrote an editorial associated to this study. "We need to take the same approach to making decisions about cancer screening that we would for making other important health decisions. The medical community had pitched cancer screening as a no-brainer type of a decision. It's now clear that this is not the case. Screening has benefits, but also risks and costs -- caveat emptor [let the buyer beware]."

The researchers stated that for all patients, regardless of age, should factor in the pros and cons of cancer screenings. For younger people, going through potential procedures and drug treatments could add more years to their life expectancy. For older people, screenings might not do anything for them. People and doctors have to discuss these benefits and risks.

"Each screening test carries different risks and benefits," Keith Bellizzi of the University of Connecticut's Center for Public Health and Health Policy in Storrs, who was not a part of the study, said reported by FOX News. "Individuals should be counseled about these risks in order to make an informed decision (sometimes involving caregivers or family members)."

The study, "Cancer Screening Rates in Individuals With Different Life Expectancies," was published in the journal, JAMA Internal Medicine.

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