PRELUDE: THE PROBLEM WITH SCREENING
If there’s one aspect of science-based medicine (SBM) that makes it hard, particularly for practitioners, it’s SBM’s continual requirement that we adjust what we do based on new information from science and clinical trials. It’s not easy for patients, either. To lay people, SBM’s greatest strength, its continual improvement and evolution as new evidence becomes available, can appear to be inconsistency, and that seeming inconsistency is all too often an opening for quackery. Even when there isn’t an opening for quackery, it can cause a lot of confusion; some physicians are often resistant to changing their practice. It’s not for nothing that there’s an old joke in medical circles that no outdated medical practice completely dies until a new generation of physicians comes up through the ranks and the older physicians who believe in the practice either retire or die. There’s some truth in that. As I’ve said before, SBM is messy. In particular, the process of applying new science as the data become available to a problem that’s already as complicated as screening asymptomatic people for a disease in order to intervene earlier and, hopefully, save lives can be fraught with confusion and difficulties.
Certainly one of the most contentious issues in medicine over the last few years has been the issue of screening for various cancers. The main cancers that we most commonly subject populations to routine mass screening for include prostate, colon, cervical, and breast cancer. Because I’m a breast cancer surgeon, I most frequently have to deal with breast cancer screening, which means, in essence, screening with mammography. The reason is that mammography is inexpensive, well-tested, and, in general, very effective.
Or so we thought. Last week, yet another piece of evidence to muddle the picture was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and hit the news media in outlets such as the New York Times (Mammograms’ Value in Cancer Fight at Issue).
A while back I wrote about rethinking how we screen for breast cancer using mammography. Basically, the USPSTF, an independent panel of physicians and health experts that makes nonbinding recommendations for the government on various health issues, reevaluated the evidence for routine screening mammography and concluded that for women at normal risk for breast cancer, mammography before age 50 should not be recommended routinely and should be ordered on an individualized basis, and that routine formalized breast self-examination (BSE) should also not be routinely recommended. In addition, for women over 50, it was recommended that they undergo mammography every other year, rather than every year. These recommendations were based on a review of the literature, including newer studies.
To say that these new recommendations caused a firestorm in the breast cancer world is an understatement. The USPSTF was accused of misogyny; opponents of health care reform leapt on them as evidence that President Obama really is preparing “death panels”; and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius couldn’t run away from the guidelines fast enough. Meanwhile, a society I belong to (the American Society of Breast Surgeons) issued a press release accusing the USPSTF of sending us back to the “pre-mammography” days when, presumably women only found breast cancer after it had grown to huge size (just like Europe and Canada, I guess, given that the recommendations for screening there closely mirrors those recommended by the USPSTF). Meanwhile, in the most blatant example of protecting its turf I’ve seen in a very long time, the American College of Radiology went full mental jacket with a press release that was as biased as it was insulting. Meanwhile some physicians even likened the recommendations to going back to being like Africa, Southeast Asia and China as far as breast screening goes in that he actually speculated that he’d now become very busy treating advanced, neglected breast cancers. Unfortunately, as Val pointed out, the communication of the USPSTF guidelines to the public was almost a perfect case study in how not to do it. Even though the science was in general sound and the USPSTF recommendations were in essence close to identical to what other industrialized nations do, they were communicated in just such a way as to produce maximum misunderstanding and misuse for political purposes.
Despite all the hysterical and in some cases disingenuous attacks on the new guidelines, there is one criticism that actually resonates with me because I work at a cancer center in a very urban environment with a large population of African-American women. Last week I heard on NPR this story:
Steve Novella whimsically opined on a recent phone call that irrationality must convey a survival advantage for humans. I’m afraid he has a point.
It’s much easier to scare people than to reassure them, and we have a difficult time with objectivity in the face of a good story. In fact, our brains seem to be hard wired for bias – and we’re great at drawing subtle inferences from interactions, and making our observations fit preconceived notions. A few of us try to fight that urge, and we call ourselves scientists.
Given this context of human frailty, it’s rather unsurprising that the recent USPSTF mammogram guidelines resulted in a national media meltdown of epic proportions. Just for fun, and because David Gorski nudged me towards this topic, I’m going to review some of the key reasons why the drama was both predictable and preventable. (And for an excellent, and more detailed review of the science behind the kerfuffle, David’s recent SBM article is required reading.)
Preface: On issues such as this, I think it’s always good for me to emphasize my disclaimer, in particular:
Dr. Gorski must emphasize that the opinions expressed in his posts on Science-Based Medicine are his and his alone and that all writing for this blog is done on his own time and not in any capacity representing his place of employment. His views do not represent the opinions of his department, university, hospital, or cancer institute and should never be construed as such. Finally, his writings are meant as commentary only and are therefore not meant to be used as specific health care recommendations for individuals. Readers should consult their physicians for advice regarding specific health problems or issues that they might have.
Now, on to the post…
“Early detection saves lives.”
Remember how I started a post a year and a half ago starting out with just this statement? I did it because that is the default assumption and has been so for quite a while. It’s an eminently reasonable-sounding concept that just makes sense. As I pointed out a year and a half ago, though, the question of the benefits of the early detection of cancer is more complicated than you think. Indeed, I’ve written several posts since then on the topic of mammography and breast cancer, the most recent of which I posted a mere two weeks ago. As studies have been released and my thinking on screening for breast cancer has evolved, regular readers have had a front row seat. Through it all, I hope I’ve managed to convey some of the issues involved in screening for cancer and just how difficult they are. How to screen for breast cancer, at what age to begin screening, and how to balance the benefits, risks, and costs are controversial issues, and that controversy has bubbled up to the surface into the mainstream media and public consciousness over the last year or so.
This week, all I can say is, “Here we go again”; that is, between downing slugs of ibuprofen for the headaches some controversial new guidelines for breast cancer screening are causing many of us in the cancer field.
Screening 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.
It’s easy to think of medical tests as black and white. If the test is positive, you have the disease; if it’s negative, you don’t. Even good clinicians sometimes fall into that trap. Based on the pre-test probability of the disease, a positive test result only increases the probability by a variable amount. An example: if the probability that a patient has a pulmonary embolus (based on symptoms and physical findings) is 10% and you do a D-dimer test, a positive result raises the probability of PE to 17% and a negative result lowers it to 0.2%.
Even something as simple as a throat culture for strep throat can be misleading. It’s possible to have a positive culture because you happen to be an asymptomatic strep carrier, while your current symptoms of fever and sore throat are actually due to a virus. Not to mention all the things that might have gone wrong in the lab: a mix-up of specimens, contamination, inaccurate recording…
Mammography is widely used to screen for breast cancer. Most patients and even some doctors think that if you have a positive mammogram you almost certainly have breast cancer. Not true. A positive result actually means the patient has about a 10% chance of cancer. 9 out of 10 positives are false positives.
But women don’t just get one mammogram. They get them every year or two. After 3 mammograms, 18% of women will have had a false positive. After ten exams, the rate rises to 49.1%. In a study of 2400 women who had an average of 4 mammograms over a 10 year period, the false positive tests led to 870 outpatient appointments, 539 diagnostic mammograms, 186 ultrasound examinations, 188 biopsies, and 1 hospitalization. There are also concerns about changes in behavior and psychological wellbeing following false positives.
Until recently, no one had looked at the cumulative incidence of false positives from other cancer screening tests. A new study in the Annals of Family Medicine has done just that. (more…)
Last Wednesday, right before the four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend, as I was far more interested in preparing to have family over the next day than in what was going on in the medical news or the blogs, the results of a most fascinating study hit the news. In Medscape, the title of the news report was Mammography Study Suggests Some Breast Cancer May Spontaneously Regress; on WebMD, the story ran under the title Can Breast Cancer Disappear?; on Medical News Today, Mammograms May Identify Cancers That Would Otherwise Just Regress by Drs. Per-Henrik Zahl, Jan Maehlen, and H. Gilbert Welch. Not surprisingly, the study found its way out of the medical news and into mainstream media outlets as well, given how provocative the findings seemingly are. From the Medscape report on this study:
A mammography study from Norway has come up with the controversial proposal that one fifth of breast cancer detected on screening may spontaneously regress. But there is no easy way to verify whether this is the case, say experts.
The study was published in the November 24 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. It found that the cumulative incidence of invasive breast cancer in a cohort of women, aged 50 to 64 years, who received 3 mammograms over 6 years was 22% higher than in a control group of age-matched women who received only 1 mammogram at the end of a 6-year period.
In their review of possible explanations for the difference in the breast cancer rates between the 2 groups — which had similar risk factors for breast cancer — the researchers write that the “natural course for some screen-detected breast cancers may be to spontaneously regress.”
“I anticipate that many clinicians will react negatively to the possibility of spontaneous regression, said coauthor Jan Maehlen, MD, PhD, professor of pathology at the Ulleval University Hospital, in Oslo, Norway, in an interview with Medscape Oncology.
Before I discuss the study itself, let me briefly discuss why clinicians may have a bit of a problem with the implications of this study, if they accurately reflect the biology of breast cancer.