Does it take a study to find out that “cancer” is a scary word?

It took five researchers from three institutions across the country to come up with this finding: The word "cancer" scares people.

The researchers presented healthy women with three scenarios: You have a breast lesion; you have abnormal cells; or you have noninvasive breast cancer.

Then they asked the women what they would like to do about it. And they discovered that women were more likely to choose surgery when they heard the C-word.

Karen Kaplan of The Los Angeles Times and Nick Mulcahy of Medscape were a little too quick to report the finding without acknowledging how obvious it is. Both did, however, address the serious issue that lies behind the finding. Oncologists for some time have been struggling to figure out how to tell patients that they have  a condition called ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS. If they say "cancer," patients get scared. But what if they don't say "cancer," and a patient becomes one of the very few in whom the condition progresses to cancer? The study says that "possibly" only 20 percent of cases of "low-grade" DCIS progress to cancer, and that it can take 5 to 40 years for that to happen.

Deborah Kotz at did a better job of getting to the heart of the matter, spending three grafs discussing the problem before backing into the study's unsurprising results.

Oncologists are thinking about formally changing the name, fearing that the use of the word "cancer" is causing too many women to seek treatment when they don't need it.

Mulcahy notes that one proposed alternative is "indolent lesions of an epithelial origin." That avoids "carcinoma," but whether it will ease patients' fears is anybody's guess. Time for another study, perhaps? Or maybe the oncologists should hire a brand consultant.

-Paul Raeburn

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