Fear about Cancer Causes Dangerous Delays in Treatment

In a feature article on the website STAT, journalist/author David Ropeik reports that a recent study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society found that nearly half the people who were screened for lung cancer and got the news that they tested positive delayed coming back in for treatment. The median delay was three and a half months. “Not surprisingly,” Ropeik observes, “many of those people experienced worse outcomes.” He said this was consistent with separate findings in a survey in England in which respondents said if they noticed a change in their health that could be a sign of cancer, forty percent said they would avoid seeing a doctor, and fully a fourth of them would just wait to see if the symptoms went away on their own. Similar findings have been found in relation to other cancers. In a particularly startling anecdote, Ropeik told of an older man who “assiduously avoided any medical care” when he experienced symptoms that might indicate prostate cancer. Startling because that man was formerly a physician in chief at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and a past president of the American Cancer Society. He reportedly said his fears left him in an unreasonable “daze” for close to a week. Ropeik notes these types of fears are based on the belief that cancer is incurable, and the false but still common belief that cancer always kills. Bottom of Form

But fear of cancer causes great harm all by itself. He goes on to say that doctors, risk experts, and others need to do more to combat this threat by helping the public understand that roughly two-thirds of cancers can now be treated as chronic diseases or cured outright and that many common forms of cancer found early by screening are actually over-diagnosed, meaning they never go on to cause any harm at all. But he emphasizes that finding actual cancer early, when it’s more treatable, is always better than finding it later.

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