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Cancer screening

Here's what can happen when an asymptomatic person takes a screening test.

November 21, 2009

Cancer screening

Routine cancer screening is designed to catch tumors at an early stage, when they are more susceptible to treatment. The practice is credited with reducing death rates of some cancers by as much as 70%. Here's what can happen when an asymptomatic person takes a screening test:

SMALL CANCER

A small cancer is found that responds well to early therapy. The patient has the best chance for a full recovery, and may even require less treatment.

FALSE POSITIVE

A test can erroneously signal cancer in a healthy patient. Such false positives lead to additional tests that can be invasive and expensive and can cause undue anxiety.

FALSE NEGATIVE

A test can miss a cancer that is present. Such false negatives can give patients a false sense of security that they have a clean bill of health.

AGGRESSIVE CANCER

A test can detect an aggressive cancer whose outcomes aren't improved by early detection.

SLOW-GROWING CANCER

A test can find small cancers that are slow-growing and might even go away on their own. The patient could be subjected to aggressive and invasive treatment, even though the tumor -- if undetected -- wouldn't have posed a health threat.

Graphics reporting

by Karen Kaplan

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