In part 1 of this blog series – The Shocking Dangers of Medical Overdiagnosis & Overtreatment – I shared with you the data supporting how more tests do not necessarily equate to better health. In fact, if you read the post, you’ll see that even medically recommended cancer screening tests, such as mammography, can result in false positive tests, misdiagnosis, or overdiagnosis, potentially leading to medically unnecessary surgical procedures and potentially dangerous treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation.
The tendency for many health conscious, cancer-fearing patients is to request every test on the planet. How many of you have received the fear-mongering viral emails insisting that you march right up to your doctor and demand that she order a CA-125 test in order to prevent your late-stage ovarian cancer diagnosis? (Yup, it showed up in my inbox 14 times. And if you want to know what I think about CA-125 as a cancer screening test, read my book What’s Up Down There. I explain my thoughts there.)
In short, more tests means more diagnoses – which doesn’t necessarily translate into better health. In fact, it can translate into more side effects, more complications, and more risky treatments.
The Risk Of Unnecessary Medical Tests
From the time she was a young woman, Barbara just knew she was going to get cancer. Although she had no family history of cancer and no reason to believe it should afflict her, something in her gut told her it would happen – some day. She did what she could to avoid it. She went for yearly physicals, got her Pap smears every year, and ate an organic, mostly plant-based diet. She even convinced her doctor to let her start getting mammograms five years younger than the recommended age.
When she turned forty-five, she saw an advertisement for a full-body scan that promised to detect cancer early. Her insurance wouldn’t cover it, but Barbara figured yearly body scans would be the best way to detect cancer early, so she chose to make the investment in her health. Sure enough, although she was asymptomatic, her first body scan revealed multiple tumors – one in her kidney, one on her ovary, and one in her liver.
Multiple tests and biopsies ensued. The liver and kidney tumors turned out to be benign, but a CA-125 blood test, performed to evaluate whether the ovarian tumor could be cancerous was found to be elevated. Because this raised the suspicion that the ovarian tumor could be cancer, Barbara underwent surgery to remove her ovary. Fortunately, no cancer was found.
A week after the surgery, Barbara was in severe pain and went to the emergency room, a thorough work up revealed that during the surgery, Barbara’s ureter, the tube that connects the kidney and bladder, was accidentally severed. Another surgery was necessary to repair the damaged ureter, and Barbara had to wear a catheter for a month after the surgery.
Why? Because she was afraid, and her fear led her to undergo medically unnecessary tests that wound up putting her health at risk.
But What If Cancer Is Found?
Barbara’s case study highlights why unnecessary medical testing can be harmful to your health. But what if the scans had diagnosed a previously undiagnosed cancer? Wouldn’t that have been a good thing?
Not necessarily. You see, we all make cancer cells every day. Our bodies are at risk all the time. Infectious agents cross into our bodies. Abnormal proteins get made. Strands of DNA get damaged. Stuff goes awry pretty much 24/7. But the good news is that the body is perfectly engineered to repair itself when the self-repair mechanisms are activated (Hint, Hint: They’re only active when your nervous system is relaxed.)
Left untreated, many diseases come and go, without ever producing symptoms or getting diagnosed. And that’s how it should be. When we start overmedicalizing the body’s natural process, we may wind up putting the body at risk.
Sure, if you’re one of those asymptomatic people who gets diagnosed early with a cancer because of a screening test, you’re probably counting your lucky stars. And phew – hopefully your early diagnosis was a good thing. But when you look at the data, the reality is that your outcome might not be much different than if you waited until you had symptoms in order to pursue treatment…