Debating the merits of using the word “cancer”

Many would say that they know what cancer is. But medical experts suggest it is not so clear and perhaps the term “cancer” is not the best description for every situation that might usually be labelled with this term.

Though it is impossible to say whether the treatment was necessary in this case, one thing is growing increasingly clear to many researchers: The word “cancer” is out of date, and all too often it can be unnecessarily frightening…

“The definition of cancer has changed,” said Dr. Robert Aronowitz, a professor of history and sociology of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many medical investigators now speak in terms of the probability that a tumor is deadly. And they talk of a newly recognized risk of cancer screening — overdiagnosis. Screening can find what are actually harmless, if abnormal-looking, clusters of cells.

But since it is not known for sure whether they will develop into fatal cancers, doctors tend to treat them with the same methods that they use to treat clearly invasive cancers. Screening is finding “cancers” that did not need to be found. So maybe “cancer” is not always the right word for them.

This is an interesting discussion to read about after having recently completed reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Several points are found in both works:

1. Our knowledge of cancer is constantly evolving. We don’t know as much about it as the public might think.

2. Different cancers present different issues, leading to some of the issue with the term cancer. Cancers don’t have a common cause or necessarily act in the same way.

3. Screening is a big issue. Who should get screened? Is it cost-effective?

One other issue that I don’t see discussed in this article or in the book: is part of the problem with the word “cancer” the connotations that this has for people? In his book, Mukherjee suggests that cancer is associated with a bleak prognosis. When patients hear this term, they know they are in for a very difficult fight. Would changing the use of the term shift some of this conversation away from the immediate fear involving cancer to a more medical term that requires more explanation and obscures the severity a bit? Is this also in even just a little way about public relations?

0 thoughts on “Debating the merits of using the word “cancer”

  1. Pingback: Quick Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack | Legally Sociable

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