By Valerie Minard
Remember the old rhyme–“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me?” Well scientists are discovering that names may have more of a negative effect that we imagine– at least, with the naming of diseases.
In fact, a working group of the National Cancer Institute recommends “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….Some premalignant conditions, like one that affects the breast….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.”
Why change things now? It boils down to fear of overdiagnosis. A growing number of doctors, scientists and patient advocates fear that unnecessary and potentially disfiguring and harmful treatments are being given to hundreds of thousands of patients for conditions that are most likely not harmful.
Part of the problem lies with today’s highly-sensitive medical screening technology. It is so good, that it has increased the probability of detecting so-called incidental findings that probably would never cause harm. Once these are discovered, both doctors and patients feel compelled, through fear, to overtreat–often at great risk to the patient.
The National Cancer Institute feels that overdiagnosis and overtreatment are becoming major public concerns. But, one way to remedy the problem is to change the language so patients don’t feel compelled to overtreat every scan finding. “The problem for the public is you hear the word ‘cancer,’ and you think you will die unless you get it treated,” said Dr. Laura J. Esserman, the director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center.
And there’s the rub. It’s not always clear what an aggressive condition is– so doctors overtreat to play it safe. Using different language, will help to lessen both the doctor’s and patient’s fear and hopefully encourage them to seek other options.
This isn’t new information. Nineteenth century health and spirituality author, Mary Baker Eddy, recognized the link between fear and disease in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” She said, “Doctors should not implant disease in the thoughts of their patients, as they so frequently do, by declaring disease to be a fixed fact, even before they go to work to eradicate the disease through the material faith which they inspire. Instead of furnishing thought with fear, they should try to correct this turbulent element of mortal mind by the influence of divine Love which casteth out fear.”
Although changing a name of a disease may appear, in and of itself, to be superfluous, hopefully it will result in down-grading the level of fear associated with disease. Thus opening the way to seek less invasive treatments. And that’s a name that’s worth keeping.