Norwegian researchers reviewed large clinical trials of six common cancer screenings, including clinical laboratory tests, but some experts question the findings
Cancer screenings are a critical tool for diagnosis and treatment. But how much do they actually extend the lives of patients? According to researchers at the University of Oslo in Norway, not by much. They recently conducted a review and meta-analysis of 18 long-term clinical trials, five of the six most commonly used types of cancer screening—including two clinical laboratory tests—and found that with few exceptions, the screenings did not significantly extend lifespans.
The 18 long-term clinical trials included in the study were randomized trials that collectively included a total of 2.1 million participants. Median follow-up periods of 10 to 15 years were used to gauge estimated lifetime gain and mortality.
The researchers published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine titled, “Estimated Lifetime Gained with Cancer Screening Tests: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials.”
“The findings of this meta-analysis suggest that current evidence does not substantiate the claim that common cancer screening tests save lives by extending lifetime, except possibly for colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy,” the researchers wrote in their published paper.
The researchers noted, however, that their analysis does not suggest all screenings should be abandoned. They also acknowledged that some lives are saved by screenings.
“Without screening, these patients may have died of cancer because it would have been detected at a later, incurable stage,” the scientists wrote, MedPage Today reported. “Thus, these patients experience a gain in lifetime.”
Still, some independent experts questioned the validity of the findings.
Gastroenterologist Michael Bretthauer, MD, PhD (above), a professor at the University of Oslo in Norway led the research into cancer screenings. In their JAMA Internal Medicine paper, he and his team wrote, “The findings of this meta-analysis suggest that colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy may extend life by approximately three months; lifetime gain for other screening tests appears to be unlikely or uncertain.” How their findings might affect clinical laboratory and anatomic pathology screening for cancer remains to be seen. (Photo copyright: University of Oslo.)
Pros and Cons of Cancer Screening
The clinical trials, according to MedPage Today and Oncology Nursing News covered the following tests:
- Mammography screening for breast cancer (two trials).
- Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing for prostate cancer (four trials).
- Computed tomography (CT) screening for lung cancer in smokers and former smokers (three trials).
- Colonoscopy for colorectal cancer (one trial).
- Sigmoidoscopy for colorectal cancer (four trials).
- Fecal occult blood (FOB) testing for colorectal cancer (four trials).
As reported in these trials, “colorectal cancer screening with sigmoidoscopy prolonged lifetime by 110 days, while fecal testing and mammography screening did not prolong life,” the researchers wrote. “An extension of 37 days was noted for prostate cancer screening with prostate-specific antigen testing and 107 days with lung cancer screening using computed tomography, but estimates are uncertain.”
The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends certain types of screening tests to detect cancers and pre-cancers before they can spread, thus improving the chances for survival.
The ACS advises screenings for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and cervical cancer regardless of whether the individual is considered high risk. Lung cancer screenings are advised for people with a history of smoking. Men who are 45 to 50 or older should discuss the pros and cons of prostate cancer screening with their healthcare providers, the ACS states.
A CNN report about the University of Oslo study noted that the benefits and drawbacks of cancer screening have long been well known to doctors.
“Some positive screening results are false positives, which can lead to unnecessary anxiety as well as additional screening that can be expensive,” CNN reported. “Tests can also give a false negative and thus a false sense of security. Sometimes too, treatment can be unnecessary, resulting in a net harm rather than a net benefit, studies show.”
In their JAMA paper, the University of Oslo researchers wrote, “The critical question is whether the benefits for the few are sufficiently large to warrant the associated harms for many. It is entirely possible that multicancer detection blood tests do save lives and warrant the attendant costs and harms. But we will never know unless we ask,” CNN reported.
Hidden Impact on Cancer Mortality
ACS Chief Scientific Officer William Dahut, MD, told CNN that screenings may have an impact on cancer mortality in ways that might not be apparent from randomized trials. He noted that there’s been a decline in deaths from cervical cancer and prostate cancer since doctors began advising routine testing.
“Cancer screening was never really designed to increase longevity,” Dahut said. “Screenings are really designed to decrease premature deaths from cancer.” For example, “if a person’s life expectancy at birth was 80, a cancer screening may prevent their premature death at 65, but it wouldn’t necessarily mean they’d live to be 90 instead of the predicted 80,” CNN reported.
Dahut told CNN that fully assessing the impact of cancer screenings on life expectancy would require a clinical trial larger than those in the new study, and one that followed patients “for a very long time.”
Others Question the OSLO University Findings
“From its title, one would have expected this paper to be based on analysis of individual lifetime data. However, it is not,” he wrote in a compilation of expert commentary from the UK’s Science Media Center. “The paper’s conclusions are based on arithmetic manipulation of relative rates of all-cause mortality in some of the screening trials. It is therefore difficult to give credence to the claim that screening largely does not extend expected lifetime.”
He also questioned the inclusion of one particular trial in the University of Oslo study—the Canadian National Breast Screening Study—“as there is now public domain evidence of subversion of the randomization in this trial,” he added.
But he observed that “the focus on 2.1 million individuals is slightly misleading. The study considered many different screening tests and 2.1 million was indeed the total number of included patients, however, no calculation included that many people.”
Jackson also characterized the length of follow-up as a limitation. “This may have limited the amount of data included and also not considering longer follow-up may tend to underestimate the effects of screening,” he said.
This published study—along with the range of credible criticisms offered by other scientists—demonstrates how analysis of huge volumes of data is making it possible to tease out useful new insights. Clinical laboratory managers and pathologists can expect to see other examples of researchers assembling large quantities of data across different areas of medicine. This huge pools of data will be analyzed to determine the effectiveness of many medical procedures that have been performed for years with a belief that they are helpful.