When it comes to our health, we always want to have the latest information. We want data, answers, results, studies, and tests. But does all that information really make us healthier?
A recent report by the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health Care is recommending that men who are not in a high risk category for prostate cancer actually avoid being screened. Why? Well it turns out that the majority of detected cancers are over-diagnosed, meaning that the disease would never have killed the men or even caused problems during their lifetime.
The reason why this is an issue is because often the treatment, even when conducted properly, can have drastic impacts on men that far exceed the risk factor posed by the cancer itself. Impotence, incontinence, and other complications mean that quality of life could actually be lower than if the cancer had simply been left alone.
Of course, this goes against everything we are taught about health. If something is wrong, you fix it. If there’s a risk, you eliminate it. The problem is that our ability to detect these conditions currently outpaces our ability to treat them without complication. Sometimes leaving things alone is the best course of action.
This kind of counter-intuitive advise is not new. A couple years ago, a similar report suggested that women are receiving too many breast screening exams for very similar reasons. Of course, there are certain risk groups for whom this does not apply, including those who may carry mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but generally speaking, the finding was that extra screenings do not lower the mortality rates and actually increase false positives.
This is all such a tricky thing to address, especially considering next month is Movember, where men’s health, including things like early detection, is in focus. The fact is that men’s health receives relatively little attention, mainly because we don’t self-advocate. Men are hesitant to express weakness, fear or uncertainty, which leads us to avoid important questions and symptoms. In the end, the onus is on health practitioners to provide me with a better understanding of risk vs. reward when it comes to treatments, tests, and diagnoses.
Quality of life is such a difficult thing to quantify. Unlike a scientific test, how do we measure the increased anxiety from a false positive, or a procedure that permanently damages someone’s sex life? Much like the debate over euthanasia, there is a distinction between being alive and living and it’s something the medical community is only beginning to tackle as our life spans get longer.