Cancer continues to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. In 2011 alone, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be over 500,000 cancer deaths.
With so many deaths, early detection is crucial. That is why failure to diagnose cancer can be a form of medical malpractice.
But that doesn't mean that medical professionals should test people too often for cancer, either. After all, excessive cancer tests carry their own risks.
What are those risks? For starters, it's a tremendous source of potential anxiety, to be subjected to a cancer screening. Unnecessary tests can also beget still more unnecessary tests and treatments that both waste money and can lead to unpredictable health complications, especially among the elderly.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent medical services group, sets guidelines for how often cancer screenings should occur. Though these guidelines are usually widely reported in the press, their details are often ignored by healthcare providers.
As a result, Medicare spent millions of dollars between 2003 and 2008 testing people for cancer who were older than the recommended ages. For example, more than 22 millions claims were submitted to Medicare for mammograms done on women over the age of 75. Yet there is no evidence that there is a benefit to giving mammograms to women past the age limit. Similar problems occurred for prostate cancer screening for men over the age of 75.
Again, underdiagnosis of cancer is undeniably a problem. But so is overdiagnosis. Subjecting elderly people to a barrage of biopsies does not safeguard their health; it damages it.
Source: "Forty percent of Medicare spending on common cancer screenings unnecessary, probe suggests," Huffington Post, 10-7-11