With 44 million Medicare beneficiaries and an annual test costing about $1,000 a year, plus costly scans and biopsies for those who test positive, the price could be steep.
He and other critics warn that the risks of unleashing testing are substantial. As paradoxical as it sounds, finding cancers earlier could mean as many deaths, at the same time, as without early diagnosis. That’s because, at least with current treatments, cancers meant to kill aren’t necessarily curable if caught early.
And there are other risks. For example, some will have a positive test, but doctors will not be able to locate the cancer. Others will be treated aggressively with surgery or chemotherapy for cancers that, if left untreated, would not have grown or spread and may even have disappeared.
Dr. Beer acknowledges that a cancer blood test “is not without risk or cost, and will not detect all cancers.”
But, he said, “I think there is a promise of real impact.”
Other experts are worried.
Dr. Barnett Kramer, a fellow at the Lisa Schwartz Foundation for Truth in Medicine and former director of the Division of Cancer Prevention at the National Cancer Institute, fears the tests will become widespread without proving they are beneficial. Once that happens, he said, “it’s hard to get the doorbell off.”
“I hope we’re not in the middle of a nightmare,” said Dr. Kramer.
When Susan Iorio Bell, 73, a nurse living in Forty Fort, Pennsylvania, saw an ad on Facebook recruiting women her age for a cancer blood test study, she signed up immediately. She fit in with his advocacy of preventative medicine and her belief in clinical trials.