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The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center

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How Cancer Screening Guidelines are Developed

Cancer screening guidelines compare the possible benefits of a test with the possible harms the test might cause, and use this comparison to decide whether to recommend the test. The harms and benefits of a certain test might be different for different people, so these recommendations are aimed at specific groups of people, for example people in certain age ranges.

The experts who put together guidelines or recommendations review all the scientific studies on a certain screening test, and evaluate the quality of each study. For instance, studies that involve randomly assigning (like flipping a coin) people to receive or not receive a particular cancer screening test or that include more people are usually considered to be more valuable for building a recommendation. Experts may change their guidelines or recommendations when new studies offer new information on a screening test, or when older studies are replaced by higher quality studies.

Most guidelines also include information on how the guidelines were developed, who did the research and how the research was funded.

Cancer screening guidelines can change if new research shows that a certain test doesn’t do a good job of preventing new cancer cases or cancer deaths. Guidelines can also change if studies show that a screening test causes more harm than good for people or for certain groups of people. You may have heard about changing guidelines for breast cancer screening and prostate cancer screening in the news. Not all doctors agree on these changes. Your doctor may recommend certain tests for you that are different from national cancer screening recommendations, depending on your personal risk of cancer.