As dreadful as many types of cancer are, often the scariest thing is the word itself. In this photo, radiologist Gerald Iba, checks mammograms, an advanced imaging screening that promotes early detection of breast cancer, at The Elizabeth Center for Cancer Detection in Los Angeles, Thursday, May. 6, 2010. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Imagine your doctor saying, “You have cancer.” How would you feel?

The diagnosis would be more specific: “You have Ductal Carcinoma in Situ” (DCIS) rather than breast cancer, or “You have a Gleason score 4 prostate cancer” rather than prostate cancer. But you would no doubt hear only cancer.

How would you react, even if the doctor went on to tell you that what you have is unlikely to ever grow into anything that could kill you, or even harm you, and that in the case of DCIS, it might even go away by itself? (Such non-threatening prognoses are true for some common ailments of the prostate, breast, thyroid, and even lungs — even though they are technically considered cancer.)

Beyond the direct harm of overtreatment, the stress caused by the diagnosis of cancer has huge health implications by itself.

If you are like millions of people who face that frightening news, you would likely opt for further tests or treatments that do far more harm than the disease itself ever would have; mastectomy, prostate surgery or radiation that can cause urinary incontinence and/or loss of libido, or all the risks inherent in invasive medical procedures of any kind.

This phenomenon is so common it has names in the medical community — “overtreatment” and “overdiagnosis” — and it is being studied and quantified. In “Overdiagnosis in Cancer” doctors at Dartmouth classified “25 percent of mammographically detected breast cancers, 50 percent of chest x-ray and/or sputum-detected lung cancers, and 60 percent of prostate-specific antigen-detected prostate cancers”, as “over-diagnosed,” which they defined as:

  • The cancer never progresses (or, in fact, regresses) or,
  • The cancer progresses slowly enough that the patient dies of other causes before the cancer becomes symptomatic.

The doctors noted: “Although such patients cannot benefit from unnecessary treatment, they can be harmed.”

Beyond the direct harm of overtreatment, the stress caused by the diagnosis of cancer has huge health implications by itself. Chronic stress raises cardiovascular risk, weakens the immune system and makes us more vulnerable to infectious disease. It also raises the risk of clinical depression.

And then there’s what the fear of cancer costs us monetarily. Overtreatment costs the health care system billions of dollars. And the U.S. spends three times as much on cancer research as we spend researching heart disease, which kills about 20,000 more people per year.

The National Cancer Act of 1971, the genesis of the oft-repeated phrase “the war on cancer,” declared that “…cancer is the disease which is the major health concern of Americans today.” Four decades later, it still is.

A 2011 Harris poll found that cancer is the most feared disease in the U.S., 41 percent to Alzheimer’s 31 percent. Only 8 percent of Americans are most afraid of the leading cause of death in the U.S., heart disease. Why isn’t there a war on heart disease?

Cancer is a powerful word, a frightening word and as dreadful as many types of cancer truly are, the word itself can do harm too.

The medical community is starting to recognize this. In “A Plea Against The Blind Fear of Cancer” oncologist Dr. George Crile Jr., gave it a name: Cancer Phobia. Crile wrote: “It is possible that today, in terms of the total number of people affected, fear of cancer is causing more suffering than cancer itself. This fear leads both doctors and patients to do unreasonable and therefore dangerous things.” Crile’s article was published in Life Magazine in 1955.

The way we assess risk relies more on instinct than intellect. What matters most are not the facts, but how those facts feel.

This week, a panel of top scientists advised the medical community to drop the word cancer from the diagnoses of several medical conditions, suggesting it be replaced with IDLE, for “indolent lesions of epithelial origin.” (Their recommendations are summarized in a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association).

And they are not the first to suggest this. In a 2011 report to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), experts on prostate cancer suggested, “Because of the very favorable prognosis of low-risk prostate cancer, strong consideration should be given to removing the anxiety-provoking term ‘cancer’ for this condition.”

The medical community is finally recognizing what social science research on risk perception has known for years. The way we assess risk relies more on instinct than intellect. What matters most are not the facts, but how those facts feel. That leads us to worry about some things more than the evidence suggests we need to, and vice versa.

It is time to treat these perceptions with respect. They have real and serious consequences. They cause risk all by themselves. If health care providers truly believe they should “do no harm,” they need to recognize the danger of the “C” word, and treat the fear it causes like they would treat any other threats to our health.


Tags: Women's Health

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • E. Martin

    This is the placebo effect, which we tend to associate with healing and getting well, but in fact is simply this: that which we believe becomes our reality. When someone truly and deeply believes that she will heal, she will. Likewise, when someone truly believes that he is going to die, he will. We are so conditioned to fear everything! FDR was right (to paraphrase) – there’s nothing to fear, but fear itself. The fear of an ailment is more detrimental than anything. There are lots of stories about people being miraculously healed of something, but our media rarely reports on them. Seek them out and see for yourself.

    I know that doctors have the best intentions and mean well, but they can and do do a great deal of harm by telling someone, for example, that he has a year to live. In many cases, doctors do not know how to treat something because of the current state of technology and understanding in the medical sciences, but that’s not a death sentence for the patient unless he too believes it. Belief is all powerful! Instead of telling someone they’re going to die, tell them that you cannot do anything more for them, but that miracles do happen and to seek out alternatives, if they’re so inclined.

    The scientific proof of our ability to heal ourselves lies within Quantum Mechanics, and the more we understand it and apply it, the more “mainstream” applications will come from it. I too was skeptical of what I’m writing here, but my exploration of Quantum Mechanics gave me “permission” to experiment and experience what it’s suggesting. My science and engineering training (conditioning) made it difficult for me to accept what I’m saying here, but ironically, science eventually opened my eyes.

    I’ve been applying Quantum Mechanics to my healing practice for over a year now, with profound results. Until doctors understand how things work at the quantum level, they will never effectively cure anyone, at least not deterministically. They work at the organ level, the cellular level, and through medication, at the molecular level. Even at the atomic level, the root cause cannot be addressed. The subatomic world is ultimately just vibrating energy; it’s this vibration that is the ultimate cause of the malady. Raise the vibration and the atoms automatically change, and so on up into our physical body. This is what I teach people how to do. That said, the future of medicine will be a combination of processes and procedures that are in use today, along with the concepts and principles that I’m referring to here (ancient knowledge). If your doctor tells you that there’s no proof of what I’m saying, it simply means that he or she cannot see beyond his or her medical training. They may speak with authority, but that does not mean they’re right.

    “What matters most are not the facts, but how those facts feel.” So true!!

    The subatomic vibrations that are at the root of all of our ailments is driven by fear. Turning off the news is a great first step to eradicating fear! (Sorry NPR ;-)

    Please, medical community, “do no harm!” Please be mindful of the power of your very words, especially for patients that believe what you’re telling them.

    Oh, one more thing … why isn’t the placebo effect the most studied phenomenon on the planet? Considering the heavy burden that our healthcare system puts on us as individuals and the economy as a whole, is it not time for all of us to learn (or remember) how to heal ourselves?

  • Olga Matveeva

    This story is about a stunning discovery being unclaimed.
    The inventor is my father Vyacheslav Senin MD, PhD. He used to be senior
    researcher in USSR Cancer Center in Moscow and he is experimental oncologist by training. All his life he was developing murine models of tissue specific metastases for mammary gland carcinomas and some other malignancies. He was not thinking about human clinical trials. However, when my grandmother was diagnosed with fourth stage surgically non-removable cancer he came up with an idea to perform immunotherapy for her. For this purpose he used oncolytic virus. This virus (Sendai Virus) can’t infect people because an enzyme that activates crucial for infectivity protein is absent in humans. This enzyme produced only in this
    virus’ natural hosts that are rodents. A lot of mice colonies in US are
    infected with Sendai Virus. The virus was studied as mice model pathogen in a few US labs. It never was noticed that it is capable to trigger any pathology
    in humans in US. Moreover, majority of people in life are developing antibodies against Human Parainfluenza Virus type 1 and these antibodies are cross-reactive with Sendai Virus. So, my grandmother got better after the very first viral injection. Along with additional viral injections for few monts her condition improved,then worsened and she passed away. Nevertheless my father perfected his protocol and treated his other relative with stage 4 prostate cancer. It happened more than 30 years ago. At that time (30 years ago) my father was told by a few oncologists’ that his uncle has only three weeks to live. This person is still alive today! A few dozens
    of other patients with surgically non removable variable malignancies of stage 3 and 4 were treated next. These patients were sent home from doctors and were told that surgical procedures or other treatments are useless for them as far as a disease is gone too far. After my father’s immunotherapy all primary tumor masses and metastases disappeared in some of these patients. They survived without any signs of disease progression for five years and much longer. In cases with radical or
    tumor-reductive surgeries a success rate of remissions and long term survivals is stunningly high. This success rate can’t be explained by other treatments (chemotherapy or radiation). These treatments were not used for these patients. It was recently shown in some animal model studies by Japanese researches that even UV irradiated (non-active)
    Sendai Virus has very strong anticancer immune-stimulating properties. It
    activates innate and adaptive branches of immune system and triggers tumor and metastases regressions. After collapse of Soviet Union in early 90’s my father tried to organize large clinical trial in Russia but was asked a big bribe from officials for permissions. He left scientific research and became broken bitter man.

    I tested this Virus on myself because five years ago I was
    diagnosed with clear cell ovarian carcinoma.

    In my case I can’t prove that immunotherapy helped me, but I
    have scientific evidence that fast growing mast cell tumor in my dog was stabilized and regressed because of Sendai Virus. Moreover, histologically confirmed malignant tumor in my neighbor’s dog also regressed after viral injections. It was of an egg’s size before I started treatment!

    I can’t find any researches so far who would be interested
    in working with this virus in US for testing this virus as an oncolytical agent.


    Olga Matveeva