Getting Answers: underutilized cancer screenings

A new study found just 14 percent of cancers are detected through recommended screenings, which highlights just how underutilized these tests are.
Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 8:41 PM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - A new study found just 14 percent of cancers are detected through recommended screenings, which highlights just how underutilized these tests are.

From the outside, it looks like just another house in West Springfield, but inside, you’ll find a yoga studio, massage space, and a room filled with 75 wigs. Program Director Margaret Toomey shows me around CHD’s Cancer House of Hope, a place where those battling cancer can find community and free services.

“It was in shock when I found out, but I just stay positive and keep moving,” said cancer survivor Becky Gonzalez.

Gonzalez felt a lump in her breast in 2019, but when she went in for her annual mammogram, the results came back negative. She missed her screening 2020 due to COVID-19 and, by 2021, the lump had grown.

“When I went for the mammogram, they still didn’t see it. When I went into the ultrasound, the nurse that was doing the ultrasound insisted on digging in there and finding it, which she did, and they did a biopsy and it was cancer,” Gonzalez added.

Gonzalez had stage three aggressive breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Dr. Sarah McPartland, a breast surgeon at Mercy Medical Center, said screenings aren’t foolproof.

“The false negative rate, meaning that there’s a cancer there and we’ve missed it, is somewhere between five percent and 20 percent,” McPartland explained.

In Gonzalez’s case, dense breast tissue made finding the tumor through traditional mammography difficult. McPartland said about 50 percent of women have dense tissue and are at higher risk for cancer.

“It’s important that women have a mammogram every year for those with dense tissue. We will typically recommend if it’s available in the area that they have a 3D mammogram,” McPartland said.

Despite this, breast cancer screenings have a detection rate of 61 percent, higher than any other cancer screening. Studies find just 14.1 percent of all cancers are caught by screenings. The vast majority of cancers do not have screenings. Only four do: breast, cervical, colorectal, and lung cancer.

“It doesn’t surprise me that most cancers are not picked up through screening programs,” said Dr. Laki Rousou, medical director of the lung cancer screening program at Mercy Medical Center.

Lung cancer screenings have the lowest rate of detection at just three percent.

“There’s no doubt that lung cancer screening is underutilized. Part of the reason for that is that is the newest of all the screenings,” Rousou added.

To be eligible, you must smoke or have quit within the last 15 years, have 20 pack years, and be 50 years or older. As is the case with most cancers, it’s usually not detected until there are symptoms at which point, it can be too late.

“Things like coughing up blood, pain. Those are indications that if those are happening because of the cancer, it’s probably late stage,” Rousou noted.

Gonzalez is now cancer-free after undergoing surgery, chemo, and radiation. She’s encouraging others to be proactive about their health.

“You know your body, so if you feel something that isn’t there, it’s not supposed to be there, get it checked. Don’t put it aside and wait and say ‘I’ll do it later.’ Get it checked right away because you just never know,” Gonzalez said.

Be sure to speak with your primary care provider to see if you’re eligible for no-cost screenings for breast, colon, cervical, or lung cancer.