Talk to your own doctor when hearing advice on the radio

by Adam Linker

A doctor at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center recently advised that I submit to genetic testing without ever having met me. It turns out I may harbor a gene that increases my risk of developing prostate cancer.

This unsolicited advice was delivered via National Public Radio after a story on the JAMA study of preventive breast and ovarian surgery in women with BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. Dr. Kenneth Offit told the host that men who have a sister or mother with breast or ovarian cancer need the genetic test. Because my mother had ovarian cancer, Dr. Offit thinks I should have my genes examined.

It is common these days for doctors and researchers to stray from carefully crafted studies published in peer reviewed journals to offer broader recommendations to the general public. This study, from what I can tell, had nothing to do with prostate cancer. This only leads to making well people feel worried and promotes over testing. But since I don’t have any medical training I decided to see what this gene means to me.

The Sloan-Kettering website says that men with the BRCA mutation should probably have a prostate exam at age 40 or 50 and a colon screening starting at 50. That’s pretty much in line with recommendations from the American Cancer Society, so I’m not sure what I’ll get from discovering that I possess mutant genes.

In the interview, and the NPR story about genetic testing and breast surgery, everyone was awfully relaxed about these aggressive operations. Dr. Offit even said that ovary removal is “not a difficult surgery” to undergo. Admittedly, I’ve never had an ovary removed, but it’s my understanding that most surgeries require admissions and incisions, which both pose risks. I’m sure that pain, recovery, and side effects are also part of the process.

NPR is a great news source and Sloan-Kettering is, well, it’s Sloan-Kettering. And I’m sure Dr. Offit is no slouch in the world of medicine. But when offering advice over the radio or on television or in the newspaper doctors and researchers should stress that each patient should talk to his or her doctor about the findings. Everyone is different and every test or treatment has risks and benefits that require careful consideration.

I would prefer taking medical advice, after all, from someone I’ve met.

Adam Linker is a health policy analyst with the North Carolina Justice Center and blogs at the Progressive Pulse.

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