An ‘alarming’ outcome of false alarms in cancer diagnosis

Lab Expt

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The adage “prevention is better than cure” modified to “prevention is the cure” in the context of cancer diagnosis might have to be rephrased again to accommodate the new research findings. A recent literature review has suggested that a false alarm in the symptomatic treatment of cancer can dispirit people from checking out symptoms they might develop in the future.

The study published in BMJ Open has reviewed original articles published since 1990 up until 2014 and has used a variety of search strategies on electronic media to serve their purpose. It represents an interesting albeit a vastly under researched aspect of cancer diagnosis affecting nearly 80% of individuals who undergo tests for cancer detection. It suggests that patients who had been over reassured at the first experience might ignore future symptoms if any as benign, a potentially dangerous outcome.

Alternatively the study also provides evidence to suggest that if patients have been treated dismissively or are under supported, they are confused and maybe hesitant to approach the healthcare system in future for the fear of being considered a hypochondriac. These injurious effects of a false alarm could persist for months to years after the incident calling for measures to address this issue at the earliest.

Future studies are needed to identify the most suitable form of information that can be given to patients to make them wary and cautious enough to seek help even after a false alarm.

Along the same lines, the lead author of this study Dr Cristina Renzi, a Cancer Research UK health expert at UCL (UK), has said: “Patients who go to their GP with symptoms are obviously relieved to find out that they don’t have cancer. But, as our review showed, it’s important that they don’t have a false sense of security and understand they should still seek help if they notice new or recurrent symptoms. Having an all-clear now doesn’t guarantee that you won’t develop cancer in the future.”

Dr Renzi added “It also appears to be important that patients are given the right support and information during and after cancer investigations so that, following a false alarm, they will still feel encouraged to get any new symptoms checked out quickly.”

The original publication can be accessed here.

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