In Depth: Early-screening anxiety - KMSP-TV

In Depth: Early-screening anxiety

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You've probably never heard of Dr. Tim Wilt. He doesn't have a TV show, or an advice column in the newspaper -- but any woman wondering about breast cancer or any man with a prostate cancer concern likely knows of his work.

That's because Wilt is working to turn America's view of cancer screening on its head.

"Have a healthy skepticism, particularly when you don't have signs or symptoms." he recommends.

These days, the conventional belief is that finding any cancer early can save a life, but Wilt says there's compelling scientific evidence that, in many cases, that's not true. In fact, he believes Americans are over diagnosed.

"Over-diagnosed is a fairly new phenomenon, but it's real and it's a major health care issue in America," Wilt told the FOX 9 Investigators.

Wilt is both a physician and a researcher at the Minneapolis Veteran's Hospital. He also serves on a national health care advisory panel, and is one of 16 independent experts who make up the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

That's the same group that came up with controversial recommendations about when women should have mammograms, suggesting they consider starting them at age 50 instead of 40 -- and even then, only check every other year.

This year, the task force stirred the pot again by urging men to avoid the so-called PSA screening test for prostate cancer; however, Wilt says the recommendations are based on extensive research.

"We want to do what we can to reduce the harms related to cancer. But, in that quest, we cannot be turning healthy people into sick individuals," said Wilt. "Screening sometimes can do that. That's what over-diagnosis does."

Not all cancers are killers. Some exist in the body never to develop symptoms or problems, but when something out of the ordinary shows up during a screening test, doctors and patients alike want to know what it is. That can lead to harmful follow up tests and treatments, as well as fear and anxiety over something that would never be life threatening.

"They become what I call a 'worried well.' They are healthy, but they're worrying about all their laboratory values or an abnormality on a scan," cautioned Wilt.

Convincing doctors and patients that fewer tests and fewer treatments can actually result in better health is a huge challenge, but Wilt is used to climbing obstacles -- whether it's in the clinic or outside the office.

In fact, Wilt has been to the 20,000-foot summit of Alaska's Mount McKinley, as well as the highest point of every state in the union. His approach to adventure is a lot like his approach to medicine: Weigh the potential benefits against the harms.

Sometimes, like his climb of California's Mt. Shasta, it's a close call. A thunderstorm developed just as he was descending from the summit.

"That was a tough one because we got lightning bolted," he recalled.

If Wilt isn't exploring a mountain top in his free time, he's probably out running. He's a veteran of numerous marathons and once ran 58 miles in 24 hours.

"It really allows me to be outdoors with good friends and it pushes me kind of out of my comfort zone. To kind of find out who I am as a person." he said.

Wilt likes to think of himself as an every man -- a guy who works hard, but also makes time to enjoy life with his family and friends. He and his wife, who is also a doctor, have two daughters. They all share a hunger for adventure and learning.

Yet even though his term on the preventive services task force is just about up, he said he will continue to spread the message that when it comes to good health care, sometimes less is more.

"In somebody who does not have signs or symptoms, looking harder and harder for something is only going to find conditions that would never cause problems in one's life, label them as diseased, turn them into a sick individual from a healthy person and result in unnecessary, ineffective and harmful health care," said the doctor.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that Dr. Wilt serves on has lots of good information about various screening tests that can be found online.

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