We discussed this on the blog a few years ago here. In a nutshell, there are findings or dysplastic cells that when found on testing are called “cancer.” The problem is that once that term is out there, both doctor and patient will go to great and sometimes dangerous lengths to get rid of the “cancer.” Given that the treatments for cancer are far from benign, (chemotherapy, radiation, surgery), with their own inherent risks, this approach may be doing more harm than good. This signals a very positive development. First, Do No Harm.
A group of experts advising the nation’s premier cancer research institution has recommended changing the definition of cancer and eliminating the word from some common diagnoses as part of sweeping changes in the nation’s approach to cancer detection and treatment.
The recommendations, from a working group of the National Cancer Institute, were published on Monday in The Journal of the American Medical Association. They say, for instance, that some premalignant conditions, like one that affects the breast called ductal carcinoma in situ, which many doctors agree is not cancer, should be renamed to exclude the word carcinoma so that patients are less frightened and less likely to seek what may be unneeded and potentially harmful treatments that can include the surgical removal of the breast.
The group, which includes some of the top scientists in cancer research, also suggested that many lesions detected during breast, prostate, thyroid, lung and other cancer screenings should not be called cancer at all but should instead be reclassified as IDLE conditions, which stands for “indolent lesions of epithelial origin.”..
The impetus behind the call for change is a growing concern among doctors, scientists and patient advocates that hundreds of thousands of men and women are undergoing needless and sometimes disfiguring and harmful treatments for premalignant and cancerous lesions that are so slow growing they are unlikely to ever cause harm.
The advent of highly sensitive screening technology in recent years has increased the likelihood of finding these so-called incidentalomas — the name given to incidental findings detected during medical scans that most likely would never cause a problem. However, once doctors and patients are aware a lesion exists, they typically feel compelled to biopsy, treat and remove it, often at great physical and psychological pain and risk to the patient. The issue is often referred to as overdiagnosis, and the resulting unnecessary procedures to which patients are subjected are called overtreatment…
“Our investigators are not just looking for ways to detect cancer early, they are thinking about this question of when you find a cancer, what are the factors that might determine how aggressively it will behave,” Dr. Varmus said. “This is a long way from the thinking 20 years ago, when you found a cancer cell and felt you had a tremendous risk of dying.”