Posts Tagged screening

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.

Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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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.

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.

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


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.

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.

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

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Prostate Cancer Dilemmas: To Test or Not to Test, To Cut or Not to Cut

The issue of PSA screening has been in the news lately. For instance, an article in USA Today reported the latest recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF): doctors should no longer offer the PSA screening test to healthy men, because the associated risks are greater than the benefits. The story was accurate and explained the reasons for that recommendation. The comments on the article were almost uniformly negative. Readers rejected the scientific evidence and recounted stories of how PSA screening saved their lives.

It’s not surprising that the public fails to understand the issue. It’s complicated and it’s counterintuitive. We know screening detects cancers in an early stage when they are more amenable to treatment. Common sense tells us if there is a cancer present, it’s good to know about it and treat it. Unfortunately, common sense is wrong.  Large numbers of men are being harmed by over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatment, and surgery may not offer any advantage over watchful waiting. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer

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The mammography wars heat up again


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).

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation

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The cancer screening kerfuffle erupts again: “Rethinking” screening for breast and prostate cancer

I see that the kerfuffle over screening for cancer has erupted again to the point where it’s found its way out of the rarified air of specialty journals to general medical journals and hence into the mainstream press.

Over the last couple of weeks, articles have appeared in newspapers such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, radio networks like NPR, and magazines such as TIME Magazine pointing out that a “rethinking” of routine screening for breast and prostate cancer is under way. The articles bear titles such as A Rethink On Prostate and Breast Cancer Screening, Cancer Society, in Shift, Has Concerns on Screenings, Cancers Can Vanish Without Treatment, but How?, Seniors face conflicting advice on cancer tests: Benefit-risk questions lead some to call for age cutoffs, and Rethinking the benefits of breast and prostate cancer screening. These articles were inspired by an editorial published in JAMA last month by Laura Esserman, Yiwey Shieh, and Ian Thompson entitled, appropriately enough, Rethinking Screening for Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer. The article was a review and analysis of recent studies about the benefits of screening for breast and prostate cancer in asymptomatic populations and concluded that the benefits of large scale screening programs for breast cancer and prostate cancer tend to be oversold and that they come at a higher price than is usually acknowledged.

For regular readers of SBM, none of this should come as a major surprise, as I have been writing about just such issues for quite some time. Indeed, nearly a year and a half ago, I first wrote The early detection of cancer and improved survival: More complicated than most people think. and then followed it up with Early detection of cancer, part 2: Breast cancer and MRI. In these posts, I pointed out concepts such as lead time bias, length bias, and stage migration (a.k.a. the Will Rogers effect) that confound estimates of benefit due to screening. (Indeed, before you continue reading, I strongly suggest that you go back and read at least the first of the aforementioned two posts to review the concepts of lead time bias and length bias.) Several months later, I wrote an analysis of a fascinating study, entitling my post Do over one in five breast cancers detected by mammography alone really spontaneously regress? At the time, I was somewhat skeptical that the number of breast cancers detected by mammography that spontaneously regress was as high as 20%, but of late I’m becoming less skeptical that the number may be somewhere in that range. Even so, at the time I did not doubt that there likely is a proportion of breast cancers that do spontaneously regress and that that number is likely larger than I would have guessed before the study. Of course, the problem is that we do not currently have any way of figuring out which tumors detected by mammography will fall into the minority that do ultimately regress; so we are morally obligated to treat them all. My most recent foray into this topic was in July, when I analyzed another study that concluded that one in three breast cancers detected by screening are overdiagnosed and overtreated. That last post caused me the most angst, because women commented and wrote me asking me what to do, and I had to answer what I always answer: Follow the standard of care, which is yearly mammography over age 40. This data and these concerns have not yet altered that standard of care, and I am not going to change my practice or my general recommendations to women until a new consensus develops.

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

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