Many believe that healthy people should examine themselves regularly or submit to cancer screening because early detection saves lives.
That’s likely true for women, who should begin cervical cancer (Pap) screening by the age of 21, and for adults 50 years or older, who should get colonoscopy.
And it’s probably true for women at least 40 years old, for whom many suggest it’s wise to get mammograms annually to screen for breast cancer.
But that’s about it, at least according to today’s best evidence.
Which brings us to a well-meaning but ultimately dangerous PR campaign by the Light of Life Foundation to raise awareness about thyroid cancer.
“Confidence kills. Thyroid cancer doesn’t care how healthy you are,” read ads in People magazine, Sports Illustrated and elsewhere. “Ask your doctor to check your neck.”
Thyroid cancer kills about 1,600 Americans per year. In other words, it’s responsible for about 0.3% of all cancer deaths in this country.
And there’s not a shred of evidence that routine neck exams cut the risk of death from thyroid cancer, according to Barnett Kramer, an associate director for disease prevention at NIH.
Most thyroid cancers grow slowly and are curable surgically no matter when they’re found, and the remaining ones are so aggressive that early detection doesn’t’ improve outcomes anyway, according to Kramer.
A routine thyroid screening program would trigger thousands of unnecessary ultrasounds and needle biopsies not to mention thyroidectomies that risk damaging the vocal cords.
And there’s no guarantee that cursory palpations of the gland by busy PCPs would detect more than a small percentage of the tumors anyway.
Healthy people should consult with their physicians about cancer screening. And they should contact their physicians if new symptoms develop or if their health status changes in any way.