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Is there a potential for misdiagnosis during cancer screenings?

Patients seeking preventative care may wonder what steps are involved in detecting cancer early, what options are available to them and what risks are involved with cancer screening. There are different types of cancer screening tests for different types of cancer, ranging from bladder cancer to testicular cancer. What type of cancer screening is appropriate for the patient is a decision that the patient can make with the assistance of his or her doctor.

Generally, screening for cancer involves tests to detect cancer in its initial stages, well before any symptoms manifest. By detecting any abnormalities early on, a doctor can intervene to treat cancer sooner rather than later. However, it is very important to keep in mind that cancer screening does not diagnose cancer, but only detects abnormalities that may result in additional testing, such as a biopsy, which actually can diagnose cancer.

Tests and techniques utilized by a doctor to screen for cancer include getting a detailed medical history and physical exam to identify potential indicators of disease, such as lumps. Additionally, a doctor may order various laboratory tests, such as blood or urine tests, genetic tests and imaging procedures. It is important, however, for patients to understand that as is the case with any procedure, cancer screening carries with it some risk; the screening test itself could potentially harm a patient. For instance, in the case of colon cancer, a doctor has to perform a colonoscopy, which is an invasive procedure that could potentially damage or tear the lining of the colon and result in bleeding and other complications.

Furthermore, there is the chance that cancer screening can result in either a false-positive or a false-negative. In a false-positive result, something may be abnormal, but it may not be due to cancer. A false-negative occurs when everything may seem normal, but there is cancer present. In such misdiagnosis cases, a patient with a false-positive result may suffer undue anxiety and be unnecessarily subjected to more invasive procedures, thus causing him or her to be put at risk. On the other hand, a false-negative result may worsen the condition of the patient who has cancer, since that patient is likely to delay seeking treatment. In both false-positive and false-negative cases, harm may come to a patient due to the misdiagnosis.

Source: National Cancer Institute, "What Is Cancer Screening?" accessed Sept. 23, 2014

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