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Mammography and overdiagnosis, revisited

Reading mammograms
[Editor Note: This is a greatly expanded version of my initial thoughts on a study about mammography published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week on my not-so-super-secret other blog. It’s such an important topic that I thought SBM should see my discussion too, and I couldn’t just cut and paste it. You deserve original material.]

I knew it. I just knew it. I knew I couldn’t get through October, a.k.a. Breast Cancer Awareness Month, without a controversial mammography study to sink my teeth into. And I didn’t. I suppose I should just be used to this now. I’m referring to the latest opus from H. Gilbert Welch and colleagues that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, “Breast-Cancer Tumor Size, Overdiagnosis, and Mammography Screening Effectiveness.” Yes, it’s about overdiagnosis, something I’ve blogged about more times than I can remember now, but it’s actually a rather interesting take on the issue.

Before 2008 or so, I never gave that much thought to the utility of mammographic screening as a means of early detection of breast cancer and—more or less—accepted the paradigm that early detection was always a good thing. Don’t get me wrong. I knew that the story was more complicated than that, but not so much more complicated that I had any significant doubts about the overall paradigm. Then, in 2009, the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) dropped a bombshell with its recommendation that mammographic screening beginning at age 50 rather than age 40 for women at average risk of breast cancer. Ever since then, there have been a number of studies that have led to a major rethinking of screening, in particular screening mammography and PSA testing for prostate cancer. It’s a rethinking that affects discussions even up to today, with advocates of screening arguing that critics of screening are killing patients and skeptics of screening terming it useless. Depending on the disease being screened for, the answer usually lies somewhere in between. Basically, screening is not the panacea that we had once hoped for, and the main reason is the phenomenon of overdiagnosis. Before I go on, though, remember that we are talking about screening asymptomatic populations. If a woman has symptoms or a palpable lump, none of this discussion applies. That woman should undergo mammography.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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When science- and evidence-based guidelines conflict with patient wishes: What’s a doc to do?

Evidence-based medicine triad

There’s a misconception that I frequently hear about evidence-based medicine (EBM), which can equally apply to science-based medicine (SBM). Actually, there are several, but they are related. These misconceptions include the idea that EBM/SBM guidelines are a straightjacket, that they are “cookbook medicine,” and that EBM/SBM should be the be-all and end-all of how to practice clinical medicine. New readers might not be familiar with the difference between EBM and SBM, and here is not the place to explain the difference in detail because this post isn’t primarily about that difference. However, for interested readers, a fuller explanation can be found here, here, here, and here. The CliffsNote version is that EBM fetishizes the randomized clinical trial above all other forms of medical investigation, a system that makes sense if the treatments being tested in RCTs have a reasonably high prior probability of translating to human therapies based on basic science mechanisms, experimental evidence in cell culture, and animal experiments. Using Bayesian considerations, when the prior probability is very low (as is the case for, for example, homeopathy), there will be a lot of false positive trials. Such is how EBM was blindsided by the pseudoscience of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it is called now, “integrative medicine.”

However, for purposes of this post, SBM and EBM can be considered more or less equivalent, because we are not going to be discussing CAM, but rather widely accepted treatment guidelines based on science, both basic and clinical trial science. I merely mention this difference for completeness and for new readers who might not be familiar with the topics routinely discussed here. For purposes of this post, I’m talking evidence-based guidelines from major medical societies. More specifically, I want to address the disconnect between what patients often want and what our current guidelines state. It’s not just patients either, but doctors; however, for purposes of this post I’m going to focus more on patients. It’s a topic I’ve addressed before, in particular when it comes to breast cancer, where I’ve discussed changes in the mammography screening guidelines and Choosing Wisely guidelines for breast cancer. There are many other examples that I haven’t discussed. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Reclassifying thyroid cancer and the willful misunderstanding of overdiagnosis

This is a panel showing some of the pathologic criteria for distinguishing invasive encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma from noninvasive. This is real science. Sayer Ji's rant is not.

This is a panel showing some of the pathologic criteria for distinguishing invasive encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid carcinoma from noninvasive. This is real science. Sayer Ji’s rant is not.

If there’s one lesson that we here at Science-Based Medicine like to emphasize, it’s that practicing medicine and surgery is complicated. Part of the reason that it’s complicated is that for many diseases our understanding is incomplete, meaning that physicians have to apply existing science to their treatment as well as they can. The biology of cancer, in particular, can be vexing. Some cancers appear to progress relentlessly, meaning that it’s obvious that all of them must be treated. Others, particularly when detected in their very early stages through screening tests, have a variable and therefore difficult to predict clinical course if left untreated. Unfortunately, some people, such as Sayer Ji, don’t understand that. They like their medicine black and white, and if physicians ever change guidelines in order to align them more closely with scientific understanding, they write blisteringly ignorant articles like “‘Oops… It Wasn’t Cancer After All,’ Admits The National Cancer Institute/JAMA.”

Not exactly. An expert panel recommended reclassifying a specific thyroid lesion as not cancerous based on recent science. It’s called medicine correcting itself. Admittedly, this reclassification was probably long overdue, but what would Mr. Ji rather have? Medicine not correcting itself in this situation? In any case, when last I met Mr. Ji, he was happily abusing the science of genetics to argue that Angelina Jolie and other carriers of deleterious cancer-causing mutations don’t need prophylactic surgery because lifestyle interventions will save them through epigenetics, which to “natural health” enthusiasts like Mr. Ji seems to mean the magical ability to prevent any disease. Most recently, he has appeared on the deeply dishonest “documentary” about alternative medicine cancer cures, The Truth About Cancer, to expound on how chemotherapy is evil. His rant about the reclassification of a non-encapsulated follicular variant of papillary thyroid cancer as not cancer is more of the same, as you will see.
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Posted in: Cancer, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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The American Cancer Society’s new mammography guidelines: Déjà vu all over again

The American Cancer Society’s new mammography guidelines: <em>Déjà vu</em> all over again

One of the things that feels the weirdest about having done the same job, having been in the same specialty, for a longer and longer time is that you frequently feel, as the late, great Yogi Berra would have put it, déjà vu all over again. This is particularly true in science and medicine, where the same issues come up again and again and again, often with the same arguments on either side. Sometimes the same players are even involved. So it is with mammography recommendations. Indeed, I’m feeling déjà vu all over again right now, as I read headlines like “Women advised to get mammograms later, less often“, “American Cancer Society, in a Shift, Recommends Fewer Mammograms“, and “ACS: Breast cancer screening should begin at age 45“. What provoked these headlines was a major revision in the American Cancer Society’s recommendation for mammographic screening for breast cancer in women at average risk of the disease. In a seeming replay from 2009, when the United States Preventative Services Taskforce (USPSTF) sent shockwaves through the breast cancer world by recommending that most women not start mammography until age 50 and then only to have it done every two years instead of every year, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has now just similarly ratcheted back its recommendations for screening mammography, just not as much as the USPSTF did. The new recommendations were communicated in a special communication published by JAMA on Tuesday.

What changed regarding mammography recommendations

Before we get to the issues, how, specifically, did the ACS change its mammography recommendations? Before this change, the ACS basically recommended the same thing that most other American professional societies dealing with breast cancer did: yearly mammography starting at age 40 for the rest of a woman’s life. The new guidelines now recommend that women with an average risk of breast cancer should undergo regular screening mammography starting at age 45 years and continuing annually until age 54. From age 55 and older, the ACS recommends that women transition to every two years. (More details below.) As I Tweeted when I saw these recommendations, basically it appears that the ACS has more or less split the difference between the old recommendations and the USPSTF recommendations.

So why is the ACS changing its recommendations? And what does this say about the science and our values regarding cancer screening? If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that over the last several years there has been a steady drip, drip, drip of studies that range from highlighting the downside of widespread mammographic screening to downright questioning the value of mammography. That’s why I’ve been discussing rethinking screening for breast cancer since at least 2008. Basically, you can go back and read my old posts and, if you have a lot of time and are enough of a glutton for punishment to read them all, watch the evolution of my thinking about breast cancer screening over the last seven years.

Back in the day, I used to fully support breast cancer screening beginning at age 40 and proceeding yearly throughout. As I examined more and more of the evidence, I became less enthusiastic about screening so intensely and started to believe that starting at 40 was too young for most women. Indeed, I was probably the only breast cancer doctor at my cancer center in 2009 who supported the USPSTF recommendations when they were announced, which led to some—shall we say?—interesting discussions about what should be said to the press and what a press release our cancer center wanted to release ASAP should actually say. I also got myself into a little…trouble…for criticizing colleagues in radiology—not from my institution, I hasten to add!—for some rather blatant turf protection. Let’s just say that a prominent radiologist, one who’s achieved far more renown in his field than I ever have in mine, was most displeased with some of my commentary and let me know about it. I found this displeasure odd, given that I am most definitely not a nihilist with respect to mammography screening (and, make no mistake, there are quite a few of those out there these days). I’m just a lot more balanced and aware of its limitations than I used to be. On the other hand, I did call him out for some of his more obnoxious comments that implied that those who question mammography are cackling gleefully at the thought of more women dying of breast cancer. Interestingly, I don’t seem to get asked to contribute to such press releases that much anymore, but in fairness neither do most of the other breast cancer clinicians I work with; so I probably can’t blame it on my previous outspokenness.

What brought me to this point is an increasing understanding of the concepts of overdiagnosis and lead time bias, coupled with a string of studies that show more modest benefits (and, in one case, no benefit) from screening mammography. To be honest, the attack dog reaction by some mammography supporters to some of these negative studies also set my skeptical antennae a’twitchin’ as well.
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“Liquid biopsies” for cancer screening: Life-saving tests, or overdiagnosis and overtreatment taken to a new level?

Could a blood draw be all you need to diagnose cancer and identify the best treatment for it? Not so fast...

Could a blood draw be all you need to diagnose cancer and identify the best treatment for it? Not so fast…

I’ve written many times about how the relationship between the early detection of cancer and decreased mortality from cancer is not nearly as straightforward as the average person—even the average doctor—thinks, the first time being in the very first year of this blog’s existence. Since then, the complexities and overpromising of various screening modalities designed to detect disease at an early, asymptomatic phase have become a relatively frequent topic on this blog. Before that, on my not-so-super-secret other blog, I noted that screening MRI for breast cancer and whole body CT scans intended to detect other cancers early were not scientifically supported and thus were far more likely to cause harm than good. That was well over ten years ago. Now we have a company offering what it refers to as a “liquid biopsy” for the early detection of cancer. I fear that this is the recipe for the ultimate in overdiagnosis. I will explain.

The problem, of course, is that disease progression, including cancer progression, is not always a linear process, in which the disease progresses relentlessly through its preclinical, asymptomatic phase to symptoms to complications to (depending on the disease) death. There is such a thing as disease that remains asymptomatic and never progresses (at which point it’s hard to justify actually calling it a disease). As I pointed out in my first SBM post on the topic, at least three-quarters of men over 80 have evidence of prostate cancer in autopsy series. Yet nowhere near three-quarters of men in their 80s die of prostate cancer—or ever manifest symptoms from it. This is what is meant by overdiagnosis, the diagnosis of disease that doesn’t need to be treated, that would never cause a patient problems.

When teaching medical students and residents, I frequently emphasize that overdiagnosis is different from a false positive because overdiagnosis does diagnose an actual abnormality or disease. For example, ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) diagnosed by mammography leading to a biopsy is a real pathological abnormality; it is not a false positive. We just do not know which cases of DCIS will progress to cancer and which will not, leading to a question of how DCIS should be treated or at the very least whether we should treat it as aggressively as we do now, particularly given that the apparent incidence of DCIS has increased 16-fold since the 1970s, all of it due to mammographic screening programs and the increased diagnosis of DCIS and early stage breast cancer has not resulted in nearly as much of a decrease in the diagnosis of advanced stage breast cancer as one would expect if early diagnosis were having an impact in reducing the diagnosis of late stage disease.

Overdiagnosis would not be such an issue if it didn’t inevitably lead to overtreatment. DCIS, for instance, is treated with surgery, radiation, and anti-estrogen drugs. Early stage prostate cancer used to be treated with radical prostatectomy, but now more frequently with radiation. Many of these men and women didn’t actually need treatment. We just don’t know which ones. This is why over the last six or seven years a significant rethinking of screening for breast and prostate cancer has occurred. There has been a backlash, of course, but the rethinking seems to have taken hold.

Not everywhere, of course. (more…)

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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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.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Screening for disease in people without symptoms: The reality

One of the most contentious questions that come up in science-based medicine that we discuss on this blog is the issue of screening asymptomatic individuals for disease. The most common conditions screened for that we, at least, have discussed on this blog are cancers (e.g., mammography for breast cancer, prostate-specific antigen screening for prostate cancer, ultrasound screening for thyroid cancer), but screening goes beyond just cancer. In cancer, screening is a particularly-contentious issue. For example, by simply questioning whether mammography saves as many lives lost to breast cancer as advocates claim, one can find oneself coming under fire from some very powerful advocates of screening who view any questioning of mammography as an attempt to deny “life-saving” screening to women. That’s why I was very interested when I saw a blog post on The Gupta Guide that pointed me to a new systematic review by John Ioannidis and colleagues examining the value of screening as a general phenomenon, entitled “Does screening for disease save lives in asymptomatic adults? Systematic review of meta-analyses and randomized trials.”

Before I get into the study, let’s first review some of the key concepts behind screening asymptomatic individuals for disease. (If you’re familiar with these concepts, you can skip to the next section.) The act of screening for disease is based on a concept that makes intuitive sense to most people, including physicians, but might not be correct for many diseases. That concept is that early intervention is more likely to successfully prevent complications and death than later intervention. This concept is particularly strong in cancer, for obvious reasons. Compare, for example, a stage I breast cancer (less than 2 cm in diameter, no involvement of the lymph nodes under the arm, known as axillary lymph nodes) with a stage III cancer (e.g., a tumor measuring greater than 5 cm and/or having lots of axillary lymph nodes involved). Five year survival is much higher for treated stage I than for treated stage III, and, depending on the molecular characteristics, the stage I cancer might not even require chemotherapy and can be treated with breast conserving surgery (“lumpectomy” or partial mastectomy) far more frequently than the stage III cancer. So it seems intuitively true that it would be better to catch a breast cancer when it’s stage I rather than when it’s stage III.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health

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In which Dr. Gorski is taken to task by an eminent radiologist for his posts on mammography

40F MLO DMMG

Introduction: An unexpected e-mail arrives

One of the consequences of the growing traffic and prominence of this blog over the last few years is that people who would otherwise have probably ignored what I or my partners in blogging write now sometimes actually take notice. Nearly a decade ago, long before I joined this blog as a founding blogger, if I wrote a post criticizing something that a prominent academic said, it was highly unlikely that that person would even become aware of it, much less bother to respond to whatever my criticism was. I was, quite simply, beneath their notice, sometimes happily, sometimes unhappily.

It appears that those days might be over. Last week Dr. Daniel Kopans, a prominent Harvard radiologist and well-known long-time defender of screening mammography, sent me a rather unhappy e-mail complaining about my “attack” on him on this blog, a charge that he repeated in a subsequent e-mail. Before I publish his initial e-mail verbatim (with his permission), I would like to point out that, while it’s true that I did criticize some of Dr. Kopans’ statements rather harshly in my post about the Canadian National Breast Screening Study (CNBSS), even characterizing one statement as a “howler,” I would hardly characterize what I wrote as an “attack.” That to me tends to imply a personal attack. Using Dr. Kopans’ apparent definition, what he has said and written about investigators like those running the CNBSS, as documented in my post, about H. Gilbert Welch, who published a large study in 2012 estimating the extent of overdiagnosis due to mammography, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), the group that in 2009 suggested changing guidelines for routine screening mammography in asymptomatic women to begin at age 50 instead of age 40, would appear to also qualify as “attacks.”

Be that as it may, I also wondered why Dr. Kopans hadn’t noticed my CNBSS post until more than three months after it had originally appeared. Then, the day after I received Dr. Kopans’ e-mail, my Google Alert on mammography popped up an article in the Wall Street Journal by Dr. Kopans entitled “Mammograms Save Lives: Criticism of breast-cancer screenings is more about rationing than rationality.” That’s when I guessed that someone probably had either posted or e-mailed Dr. Kopans a link to my previous post in response to that article. Given the confluence of events, I think it’s a perfect time to discuss both Dr. Kopans’ e-mail and his article, because they cover many of the same issues. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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Mammography and the acute discomfort of change

As I write this, I am attending the 2014 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR, Twitter hashtag #AACR14) in San Diego. Basically, it’s one of the largest meetings of basic and translational cancer researchers in the world. I try to go every year, and pretty much have succeeded since around 1998 or 1999. As an “old-timer” who’s attended at least a dozen AACR meetings and presented many abstracts, I can see various trends and observe the attitudes of researchers involved in basic research, contrasting them to that of clinicians. One difference is, as you might expect, that basic and translational researchers tend to embrace new findings and ideas much more rapidly than clinicians do. This is not unexpected because the reason scientists and clinical researchers actually do research is because they want to discover something new. Physicians who are not also researchers become physicians because they want to take care of patients. Because they represent the direct interface between (hopefully) science-based medicine and actual patients, they have a tendency to be more conservative about embracing new findings or rejecting current treatments found not to be effective.

While basic scientists are as human anyone else and therefore just as prone to be suspicious and dismissive of findings that do not jibe with their scientific world view, they can (usually) eventually be convinced by experimental observations and evidence. As I’ve said many times before, the process is messy and frequently combative, but eventually science wins out, although sometimes it takes far longer than in retrospect we think it should have, an observations frequently exploited by advocates of pseudoscience and quackery to claim that their pseudoscience or quackery must be taken seriously because “science was wrong before.” To this, I like to paraphrase Dara O’Briain’s famous adage that just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale that you want. But I digress (although only a little). In accepting the validity of science that indicates either that a medical intervention that was commonly used either doesn’t help, doesn’t help as much as we thought it did, or can even be harmful, they have to contend with the normal human reluctance to admit to oneself that what one was doing before might not have been of value (or might have been of less value than previously believed) or that, worst of all, might have caused harm. Or, to put it differently, physicians understandably become acutely uncomfortable when faced with evidence that the benefit-risk profile of common treatment or test might not be as favorable as previously believed. Add to that the investment that various specialties have in such treatments, which lead to financial conflicts of interest (COI) and desires to protect turf (and therefore income), and negative evidence can have a hard go among clinicians.
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health, Science and the Media

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The Canadian National Breast Screening Study ignites a new round in the mammography wars

The last couple of weeks, I’ve made allusions to the “Bat Signal” (or, as I called it, the “Cancer Signal,” although that’s a horrible name and I need to think of a better one). Basically, when the Bat Cancer Signal goes up (hey, I like that one better, but do bats get cancer?), it means that a study or story has hit the press that demands my attention. It happened again just last week, when stories started hitting the press hot and heavy about a new study of mammography, stories with titles like Vast Study Casts Doubts on Value of Mammograms and Do Mammograms Save Lives? ‘Hardly,’ a New Study Finds, but I had a dilemma. The reason is that the stories about this new study hit the press largely last Tuesday and Wednesday, the study having apparently been released “in the wild” Monday night. People were e-mailing me and Tweeting at me the study and asking if I was going to blog it. Even Harriet Hall wanted to know if I was going to cover it. (And you know we all have a damned hard time denying such a request when Harriet makes it.) Even worse, the PR person at my cancer center was sending out frantic e-mails to breast cancer clinicians because the press had been calling her and wanted expert comment. Yikes!

What to do? What to do? My turn to blog here wasn’t for five more days, and, although I have in the past occasionally jumped my turn and posted on a day not my own, I hate to draw attention from one of our other fine bloggers unless it’s something really critical. Yet, in the blogosphere, stories like this have a short half-life. I could have written something up and posted it on my not-so-secret other blog (NSSOB, for you newbies), but I like to save studies like this to appear either first here or, at worst, concurrently with a crosspost at my NSSOB. (Guess what’s happening today?) So that’s what I ended up doing, and in a way I’m glad I did. The reason is that it gave me time to cogitate and wait for reactions. True, it’s at the risk of the study fading from the public consciousness, as it had already begun to do by Friday, but such is life.
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