That Cancer You Beat May Not Have Been 'Cancer'

Some early diagnoses steal funding from bad cancers: Virginia Postrel
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 19, 2013 11:57 AM CDT
That Cancer You Beat May Not Have Been 'Cancer'
This undated image made available by the National Institutes of Health and National Center for Microscopy in Aug. 2013 shows HeLa cells. The cells were cultured with a fluorescent proteins targeted to the Golgi apparatus (orange), microtubules (green) and counterstained for DNA (cyan). The cancerous...   (AP Photo/National Institutes of Health, National Center for Microscopy, Tom Deerinck)

When it comes to cancer, we live in a world where early diagnosis has become king, with the "reigning theory" being that early detection and treatment mean a reduced chance of death, writes Virginia Postrel at Bloomberg. "Yet this theory infers causality from correlation. It implicitly assumes that cancer is cancer is cancer." The truth of the matter is people may survive early-stage cancers "not because they’re treated in time, but because their disease never would have become life-threatening at all." While the intention is good, our early-detection obsession leads to "traumatic treatments" for many people who aren't facing a life-threatening disease and distracts doctors from a more important task: "developing ways to identify and treat the really dangerous fast-growing cancers."

In a recent JAMA article, three oncologists recommend that "cancer" refer only to those to conditions that would likely kill you if you don't treat them. Another oncologist argues that rarely fatal "slow-growing prostate tumors" should be called "indolent lesions of epithelial origin" instead of "cancer," noting pitfalls associated with attaching the word to these tumors: patients get sick with worry, have issues getting new life insurance, and can even see their career stymied by worried bosses. Postrel is on board. "Changing the vocabulary finesses the fundamental cultural issue. ... Someone doesn't develop 'cancer' but, rather, 'a cancer.' How frightening that diagnosis should be depends on which one." Click for the full column. (Read more cancer stories.)

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