Just after Christmas, the world learned that beloved Argentine President Cristina Fernandez had been diagnosed with early-stage papillary carcinoma. She underwent surgery for the cancer this week…only to find out, her spokesperson has state, that it wasn’t cancer at all. But that doesn’t mean that a diagnosis like her’s should be doubted. False alarms like this one are really rare–and early detection is still the most important tool in the fight against cancer.
When it was initially reported that the mass in the style icon and gifted orator’s thyroid was believed to be cancerous, her prognosis was very good, because the lump had been detected early, and because she was able to schedule an appointment to remove the gland early enough to avoid the spread. However, after the successful removal of the thyroid, it was determined that the lump was not, in fact, cancerous. But it wasn’t that the doctors who diagnosed her were clueless–it’s that the tests for thyroid cancer are, like all tests, slightly fallible.
The turnaround from “cancer” to “not cancer” may make Fernandez’s original diagnosis seem questionable, but here’s the rub: reversals like this one are definitely not the standard when it comes to thyroid cancer. Because while some test results which may indicate the presence of cancerous cells, like an inconclusive Pap smear, happen fairly frequently–you probably know someone who’s gone through that unpleasant scenario–that’s just not the case with the tests used for thyroid cancer. Those tests are correct around 94% of the time–and the other 6% is made up mostly of false negatives, which are much more dangerous. In cases where the cancer was detected early, those tests could save a life.
Translation? Fernandez is in a very fortunate percentage of people, and this situation is not typical. But she’s still going to face a tough battle for her health.
Unfortunately, while a false positive sounds like great news (hooray, cancer-free!), with papillary carcinoma, the only way to find out conclusively if it’s cancer or not is to remove the thyroid, which is what Fernandez has just undergone. Thyroid removal can wreak havoc on the body, throwing off hormone production and generally sending various functions into a tailspin.But if the alternative is cancer (which, again, most of the time it is), it may seem worth it to get it out early.
This reversal is great news for Fernandez’s fans, friends, and family–but it’s important to remember that it’s also a rarity. Early detection, and, in the case of thyroid cancer, removal of the glad, is still the best defense against cancer.
Image: Ecuador Times