The federal government wants to reduce the number of Americans diagnosed each year with cancer. But not by better preventive care or healthier living. Instead, the government wants to redefinethe term “cancer” so that fewer conditions qualify as a true cancer. What does this mean for ordinary Americans — and should we be concerned?
On July 29, 2013, a working group for the National Cancer Institute (the main government agency for cancer research)published a paper proposing that the term “cancer” be reserved for lesions with a reasonable likelihood of killing the patient if left untreated. Slower growing tumors would be called a different name such as “indolent lesions of epithelial origin” (IDLE). Their justification was that modern medical technology now allows doctors to detect small, slow-growing tumors that likely wouldn’t be fatal. Yet once patients are told they have a cancer, many become frightened and seek unnecessary further tests, chemotherapy, radiation, and/or surgery. By redefining the term “cancer,” the National Cancer Institute hopes to reduce patient anxiety and reduce the risks and expenses associated with supposedly unnecessary medical procedures. In technical terms, the government hopes to reduce “overdiagnosis” and “overtreatment” of cancer.