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False positives show need to adjust expectations for cancer screening tests

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False positives show need to adjust expectations for cancer screening tests

Picture of Manoj Jain

Several years ago, during an annual mammogram, my wife, who is in her 40s, was told a mass had been found in one of her breasts. Anxious and uncertain, she had a biopsy, and we braced for the worst.

Washington Post
Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Several years ago, during an annual mammogram, my wife, who is in her 40s, was told a mass had been found in one of her breasts. Anxious and uncertain, she had a biopsy, and we braced for the worst.

My father-in-law, when in his 50s, went through a similarly harrowing experience when a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test given during a routine physical exam came out positive, and he underwent a prostate biopsy.

Fortunately, both my wife and father-in-law were found to be victims not of cancer but of false positives. It’s a common outcome — about three of every 10 mammograms and about seven of every 10 positive PSA tests result in false alarms. Like my wife and father-in-law, many people may feel that the short-term pain of these tests is worth the reassurance that they are cancer-free. But lately the idea that screening tests are a surefire weapon against cancer has been undermined.

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