New Cancer Guidelines: One Good Message

News about changing guidelines for cervical and breast cancer screening have some women cheering, a lot of women fuming, and most women feeling confused. Or betrayed, or mistreated or worse.

There is one universal message in it all: every woman has to be her own advocate.

For most of us, that is no big deal. We’ve known for a long time that no two of us (and surely no four collections of breast tissue or no two histories of sexual activity) are alike, and most of us have gotten used to asking a lot of questions. It’s unfortunate that so many changes have been announced at almost the same time, and especially that the issue has become politicized.

New York Times health writer Denise Grady summed up the latest developments, and the issues that have caused confusion and anger in a November 20 article:

New guidelines for cervical cancer screening say women should delay their first Pap test until age 21, and be screened less often than recommended in the past.

The advice, from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, is meant to decrease unnecessary testing and potentially harmful treatment, particularly in teenagers and young women. The group’s previous guidelines had recommended yearly testing for young women, starting within three years of their first sexual intercourse, but no later than age 21.

Arriving on the heels of hotly disputed guidelines calling for less use of mammography, the new recommendations might seem like part of a larger plan to slash cancer screening for women. But the timing was coincidental, said Dr. Cheryl B. Iglesia, the chairwoman of a panel in the obstetricians’ group that developed the Pap smear guidelines. The group updates its advice regularly based on new medical information, and Dr. Iglesia said the latest recommendations had been in the works for several years, “long before the Obama health plan came into existence.”

She called the timing crazy, uncanny and “an unfortunate perfect storm,” adding, “There’s no political agenda with regard to these recommendations.”

Dr. Iglesia said the argument for changing Pap screening was more compelling than that for cutting back on mammography — which the obstetricians’ group has staunchly opposed — because there is more potential for harm from the overuse of Pap tests. The reason is that young women are especially prone to develop abnormalities in the cervix that appear to be precancerous, but that will go away if left alone. But when Pap tests find the growths, doctors often remove them, with procedures that can injure the cervix and lead to problems later when a woman becomes pregnant, including premature birth and an increased risk of needing a Caesarean.

Still, the new recommendations for Pap tests are likely to feed a political debate in Washington over health care overhaul proposals. The mammogram advice led some Republicans to predict that such recommendations would lead to rationing.

It boils down to this: every woman will need to pay close attention to her own health care. That is bad news for the less educated, the less aggressive, and those with less access to care, and not particularly good news for many older women who grew up with “The doctor knows best” excuse for not paying attention.But it’s good news for those of us, particularly older women, who have questioned what sometimes seemed too-frequent testing and screening.

Asking questions just got more respectable.

Guidelines Push Back Age for Cervical Cancer Tests – NYTimes.com.

Skip mammograms, quit breast self-exams, and maybe lighten up on 'defensive medicine' while we're at it

All those mammograms, self-exams and dutiful attention to catching breast cancer at the very first sign? Forget it. Might even do more harm than good.

As summarized by Associated Press writers Stephanie Nano and Marilynn Machione late Monday,
Most women don’t need a mammogram in their 40s and should get one every two years starting at 50, a government task forcesaid Monday. It’s a major reversal that conflicts with the American Cancer Society‘s long-standing position.

Also, the task force said breast self-exams do no good and women shouldn’t be taught to do them.

For most of the past two decades, the cancer society has been recommending annual mammograms beginning at 40.

But the government panel of doctors and scientists concluded that getting screened for breast cancer so early and so often leads to too many false alarms and unneeded biopsies without substantially improving women’s odds of survival.

“The benefits are less and the harms are greater when screening starts in the 40s,” said Dr. Diana Petitti, vice chair of the panel.

The new guidelines were issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, whose stance influences coverage of screening tests by Medicare and many insurance companies.

But Susan Pisano, a spokeswoman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry group, said insurance coverage isn’t likely to change because of the new guidelines. No changes are planned in Medicare coverage either, said Dori Salcido, spokeswoman for the Health and Human Services department.

Maybe, just maybe, a clearer look at breast cancer screening could be accompanied by a good look at a little of the other possibly unnecessary and extraordinarily pricey “defensive medicine” going on around the country. What a fine way that would be to hold down costs and save a lot of time and angst. In another recent article (November 5) published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Associated Press reporter Steve LeBlanc wrote of how the costs of “defensive medicine,” along with malpractice insurance and lawsuit awards, are adding significantly to the soaring costs of health care.

LeBlanc illustrates the issue with a story that rings sadly true:

Dr. James Wang says he tries to tell his patients when medical procedures aren’t necessary. If they insist, though, he will do it – not so much to protect their health as his own practice.

After being sued for allegedly failing to diagnose a case of appendicitis, Wang says he turned to what’s known as “defensive medicine,” ordering extra tests, scans, consultations and even hospitalization to protect against malpractice suits.

“You are thinking about what can I do to prevent this from happening again,” he said, adding that he did nothing wrong but agreed to a minor settlement to avoid a trial.

We have, LeBlanc explains, doctors battling malpractice premiums and lawyers saying malpractice suits discourage bad medicine — meanwhile, the costs of it all add up to some ten percent of health care expenditures.

We the public, healthy and sickly alike, are caught in the middle. Could we not somehow declare a truce? We’ll quit rushing to sue, lawyers back off from chasing ambulances, doctors go about the business of practicing medicine according to patient need rather than fear of consequences. Seems like a good idea to me, but I’m not holding my breath.

I’m also not having any more mammograms any time soon.

New advice: Skip mammograms in 40s, start at 50 – Yahoo! News.

Cancer Gurus, CDC – Whom can you trust?

In the news of the past several days are reports that the American Cancer Society is about to concede that screenings for breast and prostate cancer — long touted as the holy grail of preventive medicine — have instead led to a great deal of over-treatment, and worse. Plus admission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that their pooh-poohing of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has left a lot of folks suffering, perhpas needlessly, for decades.

Who in the world is there left to trust?

I do trust my physicians at Kaiser, and continue to hope the crafters of our elusive health reform bills are looking in Kaiser’s direction. My breast cancer was detected through a regular mammogram. How frequent these screenings should be is still a matter of debate, but in my case early detection led to a quick mastectomy, a small price to pay for living happily a few more years after. (The ever-after business is not a principal to which I subscribe.) On the other hand, small as my tumor was, who’s to say it might have sat there harmlessly a few more years untreated? Please don’t get me wrong; I would not have opted for waiting to see. Just wondering.

I’m not so sure about prostate cancer screening. But since what seems nearly every man I know over 65 has been diagnosed with prostate cancer after a routine screening, it’s possible to wonder about this too. An October 21 New York Times article cites a new analysis by Dr. Laura Esserman, a professor of surgery and radiology at the University of California, San Francisco and director of the Carol Frank Buck Breast Cancer Center and Dr. Ian Thompson, professor and chairman of the department of urology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio that “runs counter to everything people have been told about cancer: They are finding cancers that do not need to be found because they would never spread and kill or even be noticed if left alone.” We the healthcare consumers aren’t getting any breaks. Here’s a whole new dilemma to mull over and decide upon: to screen or not to screen, to treat or not to treat. In one group of gentlemen friends I know, others newly diagnosed with prostate cancer are invited to hang out for an hour or so and listen to the pros and cons of the various treatment options — because within the group are men who have gone down at least 4 or 5 different paths.

Another re-evaluation, this one a little more sinister, centers around the dismissive attitude long held by the venerable Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guardian of our national health and welfare where things like viruses and other causes of infectious disease are concerned. In a Times op ed piece titled ‘A Case of Chronic Denial‘, Hillary Johnson reports on a recent study in the journal Science about a virus found in prostate cancers which will be referred to here by its shorter name, XRMV. It now turns out that there may be a link between XRMV and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, more commonly referred to these days as CFIDS, and the work now going on in this area of research could be significant in treatment of the latter. Having had a number of friends and family members suffering from CFIDS, I admit to being among those who occasionally thought it might be partly in one’s head, but also aware of the degree of misery and disability CFIDS can bring.

This space is not a health authority. It is, rather aimed at those of us 50-somethings and over, many of whom have trusted many of the above. Trust is good. Open-mindedness is better. Questioning might be best of all.