Redefining the word "cancer"

Can a simple act of a few individuals change how we think about cancer? Well, not a few, anymore, but a growing choir of voices are now redefining the term "cancer." We have known for a long time that there is a continuum from benign to cancerous growth. We even have names for some of these, such as borderline malignancy of the ovary. In the case of ductal carcinoma in situ of the breast (DCIS), the survival of patients is equal to the general population, but it is often treated with surgery, radiation and tamoxifen. The Institute of Medicine has called for not just a redefinition of names, but a realignment of the cancer culture of "detect and eradicate." A recent article (Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment in Cancer: An Opportunity for Improvement) in the Journal of the American Medical Association highlights this problem in cancer screening, where the knee-jerk reaction for any cancer is to treat low- and high-risk cancer with many of the same treatment, therefore exposing everyone to side effects and complications while many derive no benefit--because their chance of dying or having their life affect by their "cancer" was minimal. Solutions proposed in this article include getting rid of the word "cancer" and using terms like "indolent lesions of epithelial origin"--this may alter behavior both on side of the medical team and the patient. Of course, one cannot just declare a new system into existence. The medical system must provide safeguards that truly dangerous cancers will be diagnosed and treated appropriately. Even some cases of DCIS can recur as invasive cancer, which can then potentially spread and lead to death. This means more research on prognostic tests – a huge ongoing needed in oncology that involves molecular/biological assays and large follow-up studies to validate these tests. We have a long way to go on redefining cancer, but perhaps starting with labeling changes is at least a symbolic start – but hopefully will be followed by both a scientific and cultural shift.