Deciding when to stop screening for cancer is 'tricky.' So is having that conversation with patients

When not to screen for cancer? That might seem like an odd topic for an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, but Dr. Jon Hallberg said it’s something doctors routinely think about.

“This happens everyday that I’m in clinic, when I see people in this ill-defined upper age. They may be 75, 80, 85, even 90. When do we have a conversation about not screening for things like breast cancer and colon cancer?” said Hallberg, medical director of the University of Minnesota Physicians Mill City Clinic. “It’s a very tricky and difficult conversation to have.”

Hallberg told MPR News that screening guidelines begin to look different when people reach their later years, particularly when they likely have less than 10 years left to live. He said that’s when the risks could outweigh the benefits of screening for cancer.

“The risk may just simply be anxiety. For example, if you have a false positive mammogram and you’re waiting to undergo additional testing, that time creates anxiety,” Hallberg said. “Then there can be things like, if you’re 85 years old having a colonoscopy, the risk of perforating your bowel with a screening procedure starts to increase.”

To hear more of this conversation, including when doctors should screen for cancer in older adults, click play on the audio player above.

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