It’s not too uncommon for a patient to ask me “Can you screen me for cancer?”
If it were only that simple. As medical providers, we try to practice the best evidence-based medicine that the research supports. There is also a consideration of cost versus benefit when determining what screening tests to perform.
Some examples of current cancer screening recommendations are screening mammograms starting at age 40 to detect breast cancer, colonoscopies starting at ages 45 to 50 to screen for colorectal cancer, checking a prostate specific antigen and prostate exam to screen for prostate cancer starting at age 45 to 50, and so on. Deciding when to start screening also depends on other risk factors and family history, which could call for starting at an earlier age. Nevertheless, there is not exactly a blood test to test for “cancer” in general.
However, as research advances, we are improving the way we can screen for specific types of cancers. A team at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) recently published results from a blood-based assay that may be able to “detect five cancers up to 4 years earlier than current screening methods.” The test, which was named the PanSeer test, was able to detect colorectal, esophageal, stomach, lung and liver cancer in “91 percent of asymptomatic individuals who were diagnosed with cancer 1 to 4 years later than standard detection methods.” The researchers pointed out that the test was not proven to detect cases where patients would go on to develop cancer, yet it was able to detect cancer in asymptomatic patients who already had the cancer.
The team at UCSD also noted that “studies have shown that early detection has the potential to reduce both treatment cost and mortality rates from cancer by a significant amount.”
To give you a little insight on the impact of these five types of cancers, the U.S. has a collective 260,000+ deaths from these types of cancers, on average, each year. China, where the study was performed, has over 2.1 million deaths a year. Still, further research is needed if these types of non-invasive tests are cost-efficient in reducing deaths from cancer. Despite the limitations of this study, it does show that research is headed in the right direction, providing more sensitive, non-invasive, and hopefully, more cost-effective screening tools to detect cancer and other diseases earlier on.
Jeremiah Robinson is a licensed and certified Physician Assistant at T. Douglas Gurley MD in Atlanta, GA.