September was Prostate and Thyroid Cancer Awareness Month, October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and November was Lung Cancer Awareness Month. We should designate December as Cancer Overdiagnosis Awareness month, because a lot of cancers diagnosed by screening tests will never kill you.
Through decades of advocacy by patients, family members, and doctors, the public has never been more aware of the dangers of slow-growing, yet sometimes deadly cancers like thyroid, breast, and prostate cancer. Newer, more sensitive tests are promoted to encourage early detection and treatment. These interventions, it is said, “save lives.”
Undoubtedly some lives have been saved by the increased early detection and treatment of symptomless cancers. Yet there is another side: the problem of overdiagnosis. That’s when doctors diagnose a disease that won’t cause the death of a patient during the patient’s lifetime. And it is a complicated problem: Many diagnoses and treatments doctors provide today simultaneously have the ability to be either life-saving or unnecessary but nonetheless life-altering.