If you worry about detecting cancer early, and therefore anxiously get regular cancer screenings, the New York Times today has an article on cancer screening that puts the whole subject into perspective: early detection doesn’t reduce the actual mortality rates from most cancers all that much. To my mind, this is the money quote:
[D]octors and patients are stuck in a sort of cancer time warp. The disease was defined in 1845 by a German doctor, Rudolf Virchow, who looked at tumors taken at autopsy and said cancer is an uncontrolled growth that spreads and kills. But, of course, he was looking only at cancers that killed. He never saw the others.
“Now we are backing away from that,” Dr. Brawley said. In recent years, researchers have found that many, if not most, cancers are indolent. They grow very slowly or stop growing altogether. Some even regress and do not need to be treated — they are harmless.
“We are going from an 1845 definition of cancer to a 21st-century definition of cancer,” Dr. Brawley said.
I’m not offering the above quote to suggest that you shouldn’t bother with cancer screenings. Do what your doctor recommends for you. But the article is interesting, and perhaps a bit comforting to hypochondriacs. If an especially lethal form of cancer comes your way some day, you’re probably not going to keep that particular truck of death from barreling over you by noticing its approach early. So, if you’re worrying about whether you’ve got cancer, let me tell you what you’ve really got. Today. Carpe diem.