If you’ve got a shaker of salt, you may want to empty it on recent news coverage of the American Cancer Society’s announcement about its new guidelines on the age to start colorectal screening. That’s because the organization’s advisory and more than a few health journalists show a shaky grasp of basic disease statistical math.
Cancer specialists, correctly, are concerned because they say they are seeing the disease in younger people, with more colon and rectum cancers detected in patients in their 20s and even in their teens. They’re unsure what’s causing this. But just how many diagnosed cases have there been — and do the numbers mean there’s enough hard science to support a new recommendation that patients get colorectal screening five years earlier than they do now, at age 45 instead of 50?
As Kevin Lomangino, managing editor of Healthnewsreview.org, a health news watchdog site, points out, too many reporters became too accepting of experts’ fuzzy math when describing a screening change that could result in patient harms. The society, and specialists contacted by many reporters, spoke often of “doubled risks,” or impressive seeming percentage increases in colorectal cancer diagnoses — but without providing actual numbers of cases.