The moment your doctor tells you that you have cancer, your thoughts begin racing. Is the cancer fatal? Will I need months of painful treatment? Will I ever be fully cured?
Because “cancer” is such a frightening word, patients often opt for the most extreme treatments. In many cases, however, these treatments are unnecessary and can, in fact, cause more damage than the cancer itself.
“A recent ‘Journal of American Medicine’ article discussed possibly changing the definition of cancer,” says Mark A. Meadors, DO, medical oncologist at Saint Francis Medical Center. “There are some conditions that could be considered precancerous. When doctors use the word ‘cancer’ right away, patients become afraid, which could lead to overtreatment.”
A good example of this is prostate cancer. Many men think they should have their prostate removed when they receive this diagnosis, but that may not be the best plan.
“You need to understand the natural history of your disease process,” says Meadors. “One man’s prostate cancer may be very different from another man’s cancer. In particular, you should understand how your age affects your treatment options.”
For an 84-year-old man who has just been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the treatment could be much worse than the disease, considering his advanced age. Potential side effects of prostate removal surgery include incontinence and erectile dysfunction – both of which could severely impact the patient’s quality of life.
Only the patient knows which situations are tolerable, and which are not. For some patients, the idea that the cancer might recur is enough for them to want to take an extreme approach to treatment.
“A lot of breast cancer patients say, ‘I want a mastectomy, not a lumpectomy, and I want chemotherapy and radiation therapy,’” says Meadors. “They feel they need the maximum treatment in order to have peace. My job as a physician is to understand what is most important to the patient.”
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