WHOLE-BODY CANCER SCREENING HARMFUL AND COSTLY, RESEARCH SHOWS - False test results can range from 33% to 52%

OTTAWA (December 2, 2009) - When it comes to cancer screening for otherwise healthy patients, testing the whole is not as effective as testing the parts. Unnecessary examinations, exposure to radiation, and false test results in the 33 to 52% range are some of the outcomes of full-body cancer screenings. Increased cost is another. These and other findings were released today in the latest issue in the Mythbusters series published by the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation (CHSRF) entitled "Myth: Whole-body screening is an effective way to detect hidden cancers."

"Whole-body screening is promoted as a one-stop shop for painlessly detecting hidden cancer and preventing cancer-related deaths. It's big business in the United States," stated Maureen O'Neil, President of CHSRF. "In Canada, private clinics have also begun offering full-body diagnostic procedures for a fee. It's important for Canadians to realize that unless warranted, such tests have no proven health benefits and can result in unnecessary risks and costs," she added.

Tests such as Computerized Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) are warranted when used to make, confirm or refine a diagnosis in patients with cancer symptoms or to monitor patients undergoing cancer treatments. However, these tests are also being marketed to otherwise healthy people as a way to scan for hidden abnormalities or cancers. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that unwarranted whole-body cancer screening offers no proven health benefits and, in fact, it exposes people to needless health risks.

Good screening tests have a low error rate, reduce the number of deaths from the disease being tested for, and do not subject people to undue harm. Mammograms and Pap tests are two well-known examples of tests that meet those criteria.

A 2006 study estimated that providing full-body screening to a group of 500,000 healthy people at age 50, at a cost of $2,513 per person, would lead to an average gain in life expectancy of only six days in 26.3 years. False-positive results accounted for more than 30% of the total costs.

"Whole-body CT screening uses 500 to 1,000 times the radiation levels of a routine chest x-ray. Furthermore, the high level of false test results can either lead to more invasive, unneeded tests or a false sense of well-being," says Ms. O'Neil. "Whole-body screening tests should be limited to those situations where they are warranted."

The Canadian Health Services Research Foundation is an independent, not-for-profit corporation with a mandate to promote the use of evidence to strengthen the delivery of health services that improve the health of Canadians. CHSRF is funded though an agreement with the Government of Canada.

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For further information:

Elizabeth Everson
Director, Communications and Public Affairs
Tel: 613-728-2238, ext. 242
E-mail: beth.everson@chsrf.ca