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Slow Growing

While early screening has detected many cancers when they are easier to treat, some experts worry that it is also identifying abnormalities that never would have developed into cancer, the Wall Street Journal reports.

"We're not finding enough of the really lethal cancers, and we're finding too many of the slow-moving ones that probably don't need to be found," says Laura Esserman, a breast-cancer surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco, tells the Journal.

An advisory panel at the US National Cancer Institute, which Esserman chairs, is considering re-vamping screening programs to focus on more lethal cancers and to rename those slow-growing precancerous tumors "indolent lesions of epithelial origin."

When people hear "cancer," the group said in Lancet Oncology in May, they tend to think that the disease will progress unchecked, when in some instances, the treatment may be riskier than the disease. For instance, some 60 percent of prostate cancers detected grow so slowly that they likely will not affect the man during his life, while prostate cancer treatment carries the risk of incontinence and impotence.

Critics, though, argue that renaming precancerous tumors will make them seem less dangerous. A number of dermatologists say that non-melanoma skin cancers can invade surrounding tissue and cause disease if not treated.

But knowing how any one particular cancer will behave in a particular person isn't always clear, though cancer gene tests are beginning to identify tumor subtypes and gauge risk of recurrence.

"I think we will get there. I just don't think we're there yet," Clifford Hudis from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology tells the WSJ.

And "[i]n the absence of certainty, many doctors and patients are opting for more aggressive treatment, not less," the Journal adds.