Risks of Cancer Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment Not Warned About

Ava Lawson | October 31st, 2013

Misdiagnosis – Patients Unaware of Cancer Overdiagnosis RisksRoutine cancer screenings are crucial for the early detection of breast, colon, prostate and other types of the disease, but physicians are reluctant to disclose the risks associated with overdiagnosis and overtreatment, say researchers. Their findings, which highlight the risks associated with misdiagnosis, were recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

While the failure to diagnose cancer can result in life-threatening consequences for the patient, misdiagnosing can be just as harmful. “Cancer screening can produce benefits: finding true and treatable cancer at an early stage. However, it also can produce harms by overdiagnosis and overtreatment,” state Dr. Odette Wegwarth, PhD and Gerd Gigerenzer, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

Misdiagnosis of benign conditions may lead to overtreatment

Women aged 45 and older are often asked to have yearly mammograms to screen for early signs of breast cancer, while men who are 50 and older routinely schedule prostate exams and colonoscopies as part of their annual physical check-ups. But, are doctors warning patients about the risks of over diagnosis during these routine screenings?

The research team conducted an online survey in the States that included 317 men and women aged 50 to 69, who had never been screened for cancer, or asked to do so by their doctors. The subjects were asked if they were given adequate information on the potential risks of misdiagnosis and overtreatment with radiation, chemotherapy and other invasive treatments, and what level of over diagnosis would be worth it to still consider screening.

Surprisingly, only 9.5 percent said they had been warned of over diagnosis risks, despite the overwhelming majority asking for this type of information. The survey also revealed that over 50 percent of the participants would not undergo screening tests that resulted in more than one misdiagnosed person per one life saved. The study authors concluded, “The few who received information about overtreatment had unrealistic beliefs about the extent of that risk. The large number of uninformed patients might be explained by a large number of physicians who themselves know little about screening harms.” 

More screenings not always better, say medical experts

Laura J. Esserman, who is director of the Breast Care Center at the University of California at San Francisco, said that supplementary cancer screenings should be reserved for high-risk groups, and not every discovery must result in action. “More is not always better,” Esserman said, adding, “It’s pretty clear that cancer — the word now refers to a wide range of conditions, some of which will not progress and will not kill you. . . . We have to be a little bit more savvy.”

Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society told The Washington Post, “Looking at the epidemiology, a third of women have localized breast cancers that look like cancer but are never going to kill them.” While a missed diagnosis of cancer carries grim ramifications, patients who unnecessarily undergo radiation treatment or mastectomies are exposed to new risks.

Legal advocacy when you need it most

The JAMA report spotlights some of the repercussions of cancer misdiagnosis and overtreatment, and the need for better communication between doctor and patient on screening risks. If you or someone you care about was over-treated for a condition they did not have, or misdiagnosed in the greater New York area, including Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island or Long Island, The Sanders Firm can help you understand your legal rights and options for pursuing damages. Call us toll-free for a free and confidential case review, and our attorneys will fight for the compensation to which you are entitled. Call 1.800 FAIR PLAY (800.324.7752)


  1. Medscape, Physicians Mum About Overdiagnosis Risks, Patients Say, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/813034

  2. JAMA Internal Medicine, Overdiagnosis and OvertreatmentEvaluation of What Physicians Tell Their Patients About Screening Harms, http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1754987

  3. Washington Post, Experts warn of dangers of overdiagnosis and treatment of cancer, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-29/national/40887464_1_lung-cancer-ductal-carcinoma-overdiagnosis