August 28, 2013

Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment in CancerAn Opportunity for Improvement

Author Affiliations
  • 1University of California, San Francisco
  • 2University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
  • 3Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle, Washington

Copyright 2013 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA. 2013;310(8):797-798. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.108415

Over the past 30 years, awareness and screening have led to an emphasis on early diagnosis of cancer. Although the goals of these efforts were to reduce the rate of late-stage disease and decrease cancer mortality, secular trends and clinical trials suggest that these goals have not been met; national data demonstrate significant increases in early-stage disease, without a proportional decline in later-stage disease. What has emerged has been an appreciation of the complexity of the pathologic condition called cancer. The word “cancer” often invokes the specter of an inexorably lethal process; however, cancers are heterogeneous and can follow multiple paths, not all of which progress to metastases and death, and include indolent disease that causes no harm during the patient’s lifetime. Better biology alone can explain better outcomes. Although this complexity complicates the goal of early diagnosis, its recognition provides an opportunity to adapt cancer screening with a focus on identifying and treating those conditions most likely associated with morbidity and mortality.

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