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.