The Word ‘Cancer’ Still Affects How Patients Feel About Their Disease, Even if Low Risk Interview with:

Peter R. Dixon, MDDepartment of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck SurgeryInstitute of Health Policy, Management and EvaluationUniversity of TorontoToronto, Ontario, Canada 

Dr. DIxon

Peter R. Dixon, MD
Department of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery
Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada What is the background for this study?

Response: The word ‘cancer’ is often associated with an aggressive and lethal disease. Innovations in screening and diagnostic tests detect some ‘cancers’ that — even if left untreated — pose very low-risk of any symptoms, progression, or mortality. Still, many of these low-risk cancers are treated aggressively and those treatments can have harmful consequences and side-effects.

We were interested in determining how influential the word ‘cancer’ is in decisions made by patients about low-risk malignant neoplasms relative to other labels for the same disease. What are the main findings?

Response: We found that disease label had a strong role in decision-making even when differences in treatment and outcome were accounted for. Participants were even willing to accept a worse prognosis in order to have a condition that was otherwise identical but wasn’t labeled ‘cancer.’ What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Response: The language used to label conditions can have a profound influence on how patients perceive their condition and make decisions about their care.

Both patients and physicians need to be aware of the potential for the word ‘cancer’ to influence perceptions and decision-making. This point is worthy of raising in counselling discussions with some patients. The important characteristics of a condition should be emphasized, including prognosis, treatments available, their relative effectiveness, and their potential consequences and side effects. Thank you for your contribution to the community.


Dixon PR, Tomlinson G, Pasternak JD, et al. The Role of Disease Label in Patient Perceptions and Treatment Decisions in the Setting of Low-Risk Malignant Neoplasms. JAMA Oncol. Published online March 21, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2019.0054


Note: Content is Not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider regarding your specific medical condition and questions.

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