My hearts sinks almost every time I pick up a newspaper or look at a news website – because there’s invariably a huge headline about some health related issue. Mostly it’s a ‘medical advance’ that in all probability will take years to become routinely available to patients – but it raises false hopes for people who need that sort of treatment.
Then there’s the headlines which really rock the boat and create so much unnecessary worry, prompting surgery visits from anxious patients. This week it was breast cancer screening.
The UK has a breast screening programme for women aged between 50 and 70. Locally, we’ve worked hard to promote it and make sure screening is available closer to home. The programme undoubtedly saves lives, but it’s also true that some women could have lived healthy and happy lives without any treatment at all.
The problem is that the medical profession can’t yet tell which cancers could become life-threatening and which wouldn’t, so anything suspicious that’s picked up by a mammogram will lead to further investigations and treatment. Most people know that treatment for cancer is not pleasant, particularly chemotherapy and it’s not something anyone would choose to have unnecessarily.
So this week’s media reports – and the resulting headlines – about a review into breast screening will now have women nationwide wondering if they should or should not go for a mammogram when they’re asked to.
It’s right that women know there is a possibility they may be treated for a cancer that may not have caused problems, but it’s not right that some may be put off being screened in the first place.
Cancer research is advancing rapidly and I am sure that in future there will be a number of new tests and techniques which could be used alongside the screening programme to make it more sophisticated. Then we can choose which cancers to treat and which can be safely left, but until then the advice I’ll be giving my patients is to go for their screening every three years. Definitely better safe than sorry where cancer is concerned.
Dr Nadeem Ghafoor