On the growth rates of human malignant tumors: implications for medical decision making

J Surg Oncol. 1997 Aug;65(4):284-97. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1096-9098(199708)65:4<284::aid-jso11>3.0.co;2-2.


Testicular carcinomas, pediatric tumors, and some mesenchymal tumors are examples of rapidly proliferating cell populations, for which the tumor volume doubling time (TVDT) can be counted in days. Cancers from the breast, prostate, and colon are frequently slow-growing, displaying a TVDT of months or years. Irrespective of their growth rates, most human tumors have been found: to start from one single cell, to have a long subclinical period, to grow at constant rates for long periods of time, to start to metastasize often even before the primary is detected, and to have metastases that often grow at approximately the same rate as the primary tumor. The recognition of basic facts in tumor cell kinetics is essential in the evaluation of important present-day strategies in oncology. Among the facts emphasized in this review are: (1) Screening programs. Most tumors are several years old when detectable by present-day diagnostic methods. This makes the term "early detection" questionable. (2) Legal trials. The importance of so-called doctor's delay is often discussed, but the prognostic value of "early" detection is overestimated. (3) Analyses of clinical trials. Such analysis may be differentiated depending on the growth rates of the type of tumor studied. Furthermore, uncritical analysis of survival data may be misleading if the TVDT is not taken into consideration. (4) Analyses of epidemiological data. If causes of malignant tumors in humans are searched for, the time of exposure must be extended far back in the subject's history. (5) Risk estimations by insurance companies. For the majority of human cancers, the 5-year survival rate is not a valid measurement for cure. Thus, basic knowledge of tumor kinetics may have important implications for political health programs, legal trials, medical science, and insurance policies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms / pathology
  • Cell Division / physiology*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Colonic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Decision Making
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Lung Neoplasms / secondary
  • Male
  • Neoplasm Metastasis
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / pathology*
  • Prostatic Neoplasms / pathology
  • Risk
  • Survival Analysis
  • Testicular Neoplasms / pathology