The evolution of our understanding of the biology of cancer is the key to avoiding overdiagnosis and overtreatment

Kelly Hewitt, Jennifer Son, Alexa Glencer, Alexander D. Borowsky, Matthew R. Cooperberg, Laura J. Esserman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


There has been a tremendous evolution in our thinking about cancer since the 1880s. Breast cancer is a particularly good example to evaluate the progress that has been made and the new challenges that have arisen due to screening that inadvertently identifies indolent lesions. The degree to which overdiagnosis is a problem depends on the reservoir of indolent disease, the disease heterogeneity, and the fraction of the tumors that have aggressive biology. Cancers span the spectrum of biological behavior, and population-wide screening increases the detection of tumors that may not cause harm within the patient's lifetime or may never metastasize or result in death. Our approach to early detection will be vastly improved if we understand, address, and adjust to tumor heterogeneity. In this article, we use breast cancer as a case study to demonstrate how the approach to biological characterization, diagnostics, and therapeutics can inform our approach to screening, early detection, and prevention. Overdiagnosis can be mitigated by developing diagnostics to identify indolent disease, incorporating biology and risk assessment in screening strategies, changing the pathology rules for tumor classification, and refining the way we classify precancerous lesions. The more the patterns of cancers can be seen across other cancers, the more it is clear that our approach should transcend organ of origin. This will be particularly helpful in advancing the field by changing both our terminology for what is cancer and also by helping us to learn how best to mitigate the risk of the most aggressive cancers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2463-2474
Number of pages12
JournalCancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Oncology


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