Posts Tagged lead time bias

The uncertainty surrounding mammography continues

Screening mammography

Mammography is a topic that, as a breast surgeon, I can’t get away from. It’s a tool that those of us who treat breast cancer patients have used for over 30 years to detect breast cancer earlier in asymptomatic women and thus decrease their risk of dying of breast cancer through early intervention. We have always known, however, that mammography is an imperfect tool. Oddly enough, its imperfections come from two different directions. On the one hand, in women with dense breasts its sensitivity can be maddeningly low, leading it to miss breast cancers camouflaged by the surrounding dense breast tissue. On the other hand, it can be “too good” in that it can diagnose cancers at a very early stage.

Early detection isn’t always better

While intuitively such early detection would seem to be an unalloyed Good Thing, it isn’t always. Although screening for early cancers appears to improve survival, the phenomenon of lead time bias can mean that detecting a disease early only appears to improve survival even if earlier treatment has no impact whatsoever on the progression of the disease. Teasing out a true improvement in treatment outcomes from lead time bias is not trivial. Part of the reason why early detection might not always lead to improvements in outcome is because of a phenomenon called overdiagnosis. Basically, overdiagnosis is the diagnosis of disease (in this case breast cancer but it is also an issue for other cancers) that would, if left untreated, never endanger the health or life of a patient, either because it never progresses or because it progresses so slowly that the patient will die of something else (old age, even) before the disease ever becomes symptomatic. Estimates of overdiagnosis due to mammography have been reported to be as high as one in five or even one in three. (Remember, the patients in these studies are not patients with a lump or other symptoms, but women whose cancer was detected only through mammography!) Part of the evidence for overdiagnosis includes a 16-fold increase in incidence since 1975 of a breast cancer precursor known as ductal carcinoma in situ, which is almost certainly not due to biology but to the introduction of mass screening programs in the 1980s.

As a result of studies published over the last few years, the efficacy of screening mammography in decreasing breast cancer mortality has been called into question. For instance, in 2012 a study in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) by Archie Bleyer and H. Gilbert Welch found that, while there had been a doubling in the number of cases of early stage breast cancer in the 30 years since mass mammographic screening programs had been instituted, this increase wasn’t associated with a comparable decrease in diagnoses of late stage cancers, as one would expect if early detection was taking early stage cancers out of the “cancer pool” by preventing their progression. That’s not to say that Bleyer and Welch didn’t find that late stage cancer diagnoses decreased, only that they didn’t decrease nearly as much as the diagnosis of early stage cancers increased, and they estimated the rate of overdiagnosis to be 31%. These results are in marked contrast to the promotion of mammography sometimes used by advocacy groups. Last year, the 25 year followup for the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS) was published. The CNBSS is a large, randomized clinical trial started in the 1980s to examine the effect of mammographic screening on mortality. The conclusion thus far? That screening with mammography is not associated with a decrease in mortality from breast cancer. Naturally, there was pushback by radiology groups, but their arguments were, in general, not convincing. In any case, mammographic screening resulted in decreases in breast cancer mortality in randomized studies, but those studies were done decades ago, and treatments have improved markedly since, leaving open the question of whether it was the mammographic screening or better adjuvant treatments that caused the decrease in mortality from breast cancer that we have observed over the last 20 years.

Given that it’s been a while since I’ve looked at the topic (other than a dissection of well-meaning but misguided mandatory breast density reporting laws a month ago), I thought now would be a good time to look at some newer evidence in light of the publication of a new study that’s producing familiar headlines, such as “Mammograms may not reduce breast cancer deaths“.

Here we go again.

Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Once more into the screening breach: The New York Times did not kill your patient

One of the more depressing things about getting much more interested in the debate over how we should screen for common cancers, particularly breast and prostate cancer, is my increasing realization of just how little physicians themselves understand about the complexities involved in weighing the value of such tests. It’s become increasingly apparent to me that most physicians believe that early detection is always good and that it always saves lives, having little or no conception of lead time or length bias. Sadly, just last week, I saw another example of just this phenomenon in the form of an article written by Dr. George Lombardi entitled My Patient, Killed By The New York Times. The depth of Dr. Lombardi’s misunderstanding of screening tests permeates the entire article, which begins with his recounting a story about a patient of his, whose death he blames on The New York Times. After describing the funeral of this 73-year-old man who died of prostate cancer, Dr. Lombardi then makes an accusation:

This one filled me with a special discomfort as I knew a secret: He didn’t have to die. I knew it and he had known it. Had he told?

About 5 years ago he had just retired and had a lot more time on his hands. He was a careful man, lived alone, considered himself well informed. He got into the habit of clipping articles on medical issues and either mailing them to me or bringing them in. They came from a variety of sources and were on a variety of topics. He wasn’t trying to show me up. He was genuinely curious. I kidded him that maybe he’d like to go to medical school in his retirement. ‘No’ he laughed, ‘I just like to be in the know.’

When he came in for his physical in 2008 he told me he’d agree to the DRE but not the PSA (his medical sophistication extended to the use of acronyms: DRE stands for digital rectal exam where I feel the prostate with my gloved finger for any abnormality and PSA for prostatic [sic] specific antigen which is a blood protein unique to the prostate and often elevated in prostate cancer). He had read that the use of PSA as a screening test was controversial. This was the year that the United States Preventive Services Task Force, a government panel that issues screening guidelines, recommended against routine PSA screens for older men. It was often a false positive (the PSA was elevated but there was no cancer), led to unnecessary biopsies, and besides most prostate cancers at his age were indolent and didn’t need to be treated. I countered that prostate cancer was the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men and that it was better to know than not to know. This way it would be our decision. The patient with his doctor deciding what was best. But no, he wanted to stick to his guns and since the DRE was normal no PSA blood test was sent.

After describing a conversation with the man’s daughter, who said, “My father was killed by The New York Times,” Dr. Lombardi then goes on to anecdotal evidence and a cherry-picked publication to support his view, quoting an oncologist who says he’s “seeing more men presenting with advanced prostate cancer” and then referring to a single paper in the current Annals of Internal Medicine about PSA screening. Before I look at the article and a recently published paper on screening mammography that made the news, I can’t help but point out that I (mostly) agree with Dr. Lombardi when he says:

Public health doctors, policy experts and journalists tend to look at the population as a whole. It is a better story if it is one story. It makes a better headline. Their statistics are people I sit across from everyday trying to figure out what the future holds. We each have our job to do.

The problem is, of course, that Dr. Lombardi takes that observation and draws the wrong conclusion, namely that his patient died because of lack of screening. He attacks a straw man, sidestepping the true argument, namely that evidence shows that PSA screening probably causes more harm than good for men at average risk of prostate cancer. Unfortunately, Dr. Lombardi obviously does not understand some very basic concepts behind cancer screening, nor does he apparently recognize that doctors who deal with the population-level data that we have regarding screening tests and try to apply them to individual patients are actually looking in a very systematic way about what the benefits of screening are to the individual patient. More on that later. In the meantime, although I wouldn’t go quite as far as Dr. John Schumann did in criticizing Dr. Lombardi, I do view his lament as a jumping off point to look at some recent data on screening for the two most common cancers, breast and prostate.


Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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The mammography wars heat up again (2012 edition)

One issue that keeps coming up time and time again for me is the issue of screening for cancer. Because I’m primarily a breast cancer surgeon in my clinical life, that means mammography, although many of the same issues come up time and time again in discussions of using prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer. Over time, my position regarding how to screen and when to screen has vacillated—er, um, evolved, yeah, that’s it—in response to new evidence, although the core, including my conclusion that women should definitely be screened beginning at age 50 and that it’s probably also a good idea to begin at age 40 but less frequently during that decade, has never changed. What does change is how strongly I feel about screening before 50.

My changes in emphasis and conclusions regarding screening mammography derive from my reading of the latest scientific and clinical evidence, but it’s more than just evidence that is in play here. Mammography, perhaps more than screening for any disease, is affected by more than just science. Policies regarding mammographic screening are also based on value judgments, politics, and awareness and advocacy campaigns going back decades. To some extent, this is true of many common diseases (i.e., that whether and how to screen for them are about more than just science), but in breast cancer arguably these issues are more intense. Add to that the seemingly eternal conflict between science and medicine communication, in which a simple message, repeated over and over, is required to get through, versus the messy science that tells us that the benefits of mammography are confounded by issues such as lead time and length bias that make it difficult indeed to tell if mammography—or any screening test for cancer, for that matter—saves lives and, if it does, how many. Part of the problem is that mammography tends to detect preferentially the very tumors that are less likely to be deadly, and it’s not surprising that periodically what I like to call the “mammography wars” heat up. This is not a new issue, but rather a controversy that flares up periodically. Usually this is a good thing.

And these wars just just heated up a little bit again late last week.

Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Cancer care in the U.S. versus Europe: Is more necessarily better?

The U.S. is widely known to have the highest health care expenditures per capita in the world, and not just by a little, but by a lot. I’m not going to go into the reasons for this so much, other than to point out that how to rein in these costs has long been a flashpoint for debate. Indeed, most of the resistance to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), otherwise known in popular parlance as “Obamacare,” has been fueled by two things: (1) resistance to the mandate that everyone has to buy health insurance, and (2) the parts of the law designed to control the rise in health care costs. This later aspect of the PPACA has inspired cries of “Rationing!” and “Death panels!” Whenever science-based recommendations are made that suggest ways to decrease costs by reevaluating screening tests or decreasing various tests and interventions in situations where their use is not supported by scientific and clinical evidence, whether by the government or professional societies, you can count on it not being long before these cries go up, often from doctors themselves.

My perspective on this issue is that we already “ration” care. It’s just that government-controlled single payer plans and hybrid private-public universal health care plans use different criteria to ration care than our current system does. In the case of government-run health care systems, what will and will not be reimbursed is generally chosen based on evidence, politics, and cost, while in a system like the U.S. system what will and will not be reimbursed tends to be decided by insurance companies based on evidence leavened heavily with business considerations that involve appealing to the largest number of employers (who, let’s face it, are the primary customers of health insurance companies, not individuals insured by their health insurance plans). So what the debate is really about is, when boiled down to its essence, how to ration care and by how much, not whether care will be rationed. Ideally, how funding allocations are decided would be based on the best scientific evidence in a transparent fashion.

The study I’m about to discuss is anything but the best scientific evidence.

Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Are one in three breast cancers really overdiagnosed and overtreated?

ResearchBlogging.orgScreening for disease is a real pain. I was reminded of this by the publication of a study in BMJ the very day of the Science-Based Medicine Conference a week and a half ago. Unfortunately, between The Amaz!ng Meeting and other activities, I was too busy to give this study the attention it deserved last Monday. Given the media coverage of the study, which in essence tried to paint mammography screening for breast cancer as being either useless or doing more harm than good, I thought it was imperative for me still to write about it. Better late than never, and I was further prodded by an article that was published late last week in the New York Times about screening for cancer.

If there’s one aspect of medicine that causes more confusion among the public and even among physicians, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with one more contentious than screening for disease, be it cancer, heart disease, or whatever. The reason is that any screening test is by definition looking for disease in an asymptomatic population, which is very different from looking for a cause of a patient’s symptoms. In the latter case, the patient is already being troubled by something that is bothering him. There may or may not be a cause in the form of a disease or syndrome that is responsible for the symptoms, but the very existence of the symptoms clues the physician in that there may be something going on that requires treatment. The doctor can then narrow down range of possibilities for what may be the cause of the patient’s symptoms by taking a careful history and physical examination (which will by themselves most often lead to the diagnosis). Diagnostic tests, be they blood tests, X-rays, or other tests, then tend to be more confirmatory of the suspected diagnosis than the main evidence supporting a diagnosis.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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