What’s in a name… Cancer?


Words are important. Quite aside from meaning, each has its own shade, its own temperature. Rose calls forth a mood, an emotion, an expectation that is quite distinct from, say, daisy. Words are little coloured post cards that tell stories and paint pictures; each word elicits a miniature portrait in the brain. Together, they tell stories, individually they hint at direction: plot.

We must never underestimate words. Strung together, they are greater than the sum of their parts; considered separately, they are the clothes of narrative: the shoes and socks so necessary for travel. Science, however -more specifically Technology- has travelled so quickly along the route, it has left words trailing in its wake. Unable to keep up with the pace, and often frazzled at the pace, words, tired and dishevelled, have often done double duty: the same old articles of apparel keeping up appearances and providing some continuity for those watching breathlessly from the sidelines. A narrative is difficult to follow, let alone understand, if there are no recognizeable links with what went before. Even neologisms build on standard and widely understood words or phonemes: retrologisms, as it were…

I was therefore intrigued -although not altogether surprised- at the e-publication of a paper to be published JAMA Intern Med ( http://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.8405 ) that dealt with how the use of the word ‘cancer’ influenced the way patients made decisions about their treatment options -even when the condition they were asked to consider was pre cancer, not actual cancer. Just that word, in whatever context, was enough to alter their choices. In many instances -especially in medicine- the words we utilize are maladapted, anachronistic and, in fact, misleading…

In the days when cancer was, by and large, only detectable as a fait accompli, who would have thought it necessary to create a word describing a ‘not-quite cancer’, or a ‘not-yet cancer’? And yet there are precedents; although in not quite the same context nor perhaps an entirely appropriate analogy for a sequentially evolving concept, the Inuit of northern Canada have always used different words for different types of snow, for example. To a southerner, snow is snow; it all seems the same to an inexperienced observer, and not worth the picayune divisions. And yet the unique words help identify each type as separate, and behaviourly distinct… Often temporally distinct, as well.

I see this confusion not only among my patients but even with some of the non-specialist doctors who are confronted with a pathology report containing words like adenocarcinoma in situ, or perhaps just carcinoma in situ describing the biopsy of a cervix from a woman sent to my Colposcopy Clinic because of an abnormal pap smear. The cancer (carcinoma) word is there for sure, but some how the suffix in situ -meaning not invasive, or ‘contained’ is missed. And even if it is seen and deciphered, the phrase seems to imply that it is in fact a cancer that has been serendipitiously discovered before it has spread… although it is not! But so emotionally charged is the word -the idea of a cell, a process out of control- that it automatically elicits such a response; it’s almost involuntary: the quick withdrawl of a finger from a flame even before the brain has had time to process the sensation. A triumph of atavism over intellect.

While not necessarily, nor even predictably so, we like to think of cancer as having a precursor. In other words, we like to think there are early stages on its path to malignancy where the cell is not yet out of control and where this identification may allow modification -or elimination- of its otherwise inexorable progress. The explanation often chosen is that in its normal state, a cell is controlled by a series of checks and balances: how it grows and how quickly; how it differentiates and under what circumstances; how it adapts to changing conditions; how and when it dies and under what influences or instructions, and so on. If that control is lost -or even modified- the cell will undergo changes accordingly. And thus, the malignant transformation theory goes, at the beginning of the journey it is under control, and at the end of the road, out of control. So, the trick is to find it as it travels along that route -before it arrives at the other end.

And just as the destination is not the same as the stops along the way, those intermediate steps should not have the same names. If I start in Vancouver and end up in Calgary, why should I call Kelowna, or Banff pre-Calgaries? No, it would be too confusing, not to say misleading. They are what they are… And what they are not is Calgary.

We need different words, new words, words untainted by the whiff of dread, and unsullied by the expectation of disaster. “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”… Really, Juliet? “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.

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One thought on “What’s in a name… Cancer?

  1. […] covered this topic in previous blogs (for example: https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/whats-in-a-name-cancer/ ) but the topic is a source of continuing intrigue for me, so I was once again interested in seeing […]

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