Redefining ‘Cancer’ in a New Age

Group proposes change in use of ‘cancer’ in diagnoses

petri dish in research lab

This post by Dr. Mikkael Sekeres is in response to a National Cancer Institute-backed group’s recommendation to change the definition of cancer, published July 29, 2013 in The Journal of the American Medical Association. The group recommends eliminating the word from some common diagnoses in an effort to change the approach to cancer detection and treatment.

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We have come a long way in the public’s perception of cancer and in the willingness to even say the word out loud compared to previous generations.

This is a good thing.

When I wrote my first book about cancer, I tried to be a good grandson and sent one of my first copies to my grandmother. Upon receiving the book and seeing the word “cancer” on its cover, she immediately hid it on her bookshelf, behind what she considered to be less controversial subject matter.

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Knowing more about cancer brings hope

Now, celebrities such as Good Morning America host Robin Roberts and basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar have gone public with specifics about their diagnoses and the treatments they have undergone. This has raised awareness about cancer and cancer therapies, and has made people realize that cancer is treatable, frequently curable, and that a multitude of support services are available through the cancer journey.

Recognizing ‘near cancers’ for what they are

Recognizing the attention that cancer has garnered, other diagnoses — let’s call them “near cancers” — have been labeled cancers by groups that have a vested interest in gaining attention and funding for those conditions.

These include conditions affecting the breast, prostate, bladder and even many blood abnormalities.

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As a result, patients who receive these diagnoses consider aggressive interventions to eliminate the abnormal findings — interventions such as surgery and radiation therapy, frequently used modalities in the treatment of cancer — and endure the long-term side effects of having done so.

Unfortunately, in reality many of these conditions were never destined to become invasive cancers, and many women are now left without breasts, many men without prostates (most of whom endure some degree of incontinence or impotence for decades of their remaining lives), unnecessarily.

Changing the focus — and treatments

Now that we’ve achieved our goal of encouraging people to accept their cancer diagnosis and treat it, it’s time for us to swing the pendulum in the other direction a bit, for those diagnoses that really don’t deserve the designation. Part and parcel with this change is an increased focus on clinics that have the capacity to follow patients with “near cancers,” and more specific guidelines for their management.

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