Cancer screening: the clash of science and intuition

Annu Rev Med. 2009:60:125-37. doi: 10.1146/


The concept of early detection of cancer holds great promise and intuitive appeal. However, powerful biases can mislead clinicians when evaluating the efficacy of screening tests by clinical observation alone. Selection bias, lead-time bias, length-biased sampling, and overdiagnosis are counterintuitive concepts with critical implications for early-detection efforts. This article explains these biases and other common confounders in cancer screening. The most direct and reliable way to avoid being led astray by intuitions is through the use of randomized controlled trials.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Early Detection of Cancer
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Neoplasms / epidemiology