"You Should Apologize For Saying You Had Cancer (Because The NYTs Says It Probably Wasn't Cancer)"

Laura Zigman Health Guide

    There was a piece recently in the New York Times about cancer. This, in and of itself, isn't unusual, since there are many pieces in the New York Times about cancer. What was unusual was what the piece suggested:

    Cancer should be renamed. Some cancers aren't really cancer, even though they're still called cancer.


    The minute I read the piece, I knew I had to make one of my circular confusing "Annoying Conversation" Xtranormal videos, because one of the types of "non-cancer" cancers the article focused on was the kind I was diagnosed with in 2006: DCIS -- Ductal Carcinoma in Situ. This is Stage 0 cancer, which I'd never heard of. The confusion started right away, the minute I got the call from one of the big hospitals in Boston:

    "Don't let the word 'carcinoma' fool you," the radiologist said. "It's not cancer."

    And so began an almost comical situation -- like a Larry David episode -- me telling my husband and my family and my friends that I didn't have cancer even though the name of my cancer had the word cancer in it; then going to see one of the top breast surgeons in Boston -- Dr. Margaret Duggan -- who, during my 2-hour consultation, kept using the word cancer as she told me I'd have to have a mastectomy (and should consider a double mastectomy). I blinked and raised my hand timidly about an hour into the appointment:

    "You keep using the word cancer," I said. "But the radiologist said it wasn't cancer."

    Dr. Duggan (who moonlights as a professor at The Harvard Medical School), took her glasses off and stared at me. "No. It's cancer."

    And with that, the appointment continued.

    Make no mistake: I never felt completely comfortable saying I had cancer since, while I did have a double mastectomy and the most ridiculously-hard-to-recover-from-reconstructive-surgery, I didn't have to have chemo or radiation. Compared to friends and strangers who'd had much worse breast cancer diagnoses, I was afraid that my Stage 0 would seem... unseemly and lame, by comparison.

    What troubled me most about the piece -- besides the sheer absurdity and double-speak aspects of many of the points it was trying to make -- was the idea that because one group of medical experts thinks DCIS isn't cancer -- that "if" left alone it "may" not ever turn into anything -- that the only kind of true cancer is "invasive" cancer" -- and that a growing risk these days in cancer screenings is "over diagnosis" since some of the "cancers" found don't really need to be found -- will confuse the public even more than they already are.

    I'm not a doctor, but from what I was told, and from all that I've read over the years, cancer is cancer.


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Published On: December 14, 2011