Widespread understanding of infectious disease is a miracle of public health. Modern drug stores devote entire aisles to medications and products for dealing with infections; navigating the options requires a level of understanding unimaginable to people even 200 years ago. Our modern abundance of medicines and therapies exists because of development in vernacular and common knowledge.

The miasma theory postulated the cause of infectious disease before scientists discovered germs (Tesh, 1995). Miasma was known as “bad air,” or an odorous, unhealthy smelling gas thought to cause disease. Miasma is not a unique concept—superseded theories of disease like the humor, spontaneous generation or contagion theories that do not distinguish between different kinds of infections have existed at least as long as civilization. Once researchers and doctors were able to distinguish infections from noncommunicable diseases, every-day language had to adopt new scientific knowledge. Now we treat infectious disease based on the pathogen, or bug, causing it. Antibiotics effectively treat many bacterial infections, but the specific drug prescribed is dependent on the species of bacteria. The scientific discoveries behind current medicines and protocols for infectious disease changed the way we think about and discuss infections. It is not always very precise, but even minor illnesses are commonly described with terms more specific than “infection” like “stomach bug” or “head cold” for viruses and “cellulitis” or “food poisoning” for bacteria. These terms denote specific pathogens and the location of infection. “Sick” often no longer suffices because general understanding of infectious diseases is common around the world.

“Cancer” is another term used to describe a large group of more specific diseases. Cancer describes abnormal cells that have lost the ability to regulate their growth. The term “cancer” does not provide a meaningful picture for a doctor or research scientist because of everything it could mean. Instances of cancer have been successfully cured, but a cure for all cancer by no means exists—and likely never will.

The differences between adult and pediatric cancers highlight the ambiguities embedded in the term “cancer.” The most common cancers in kids are not the same as the most common cancers in adults. It is not surprising that curable adult cancers (skin cancer, for instance) are well researched in the lab, and their treatment options have been developed over years for millions of patients. Unlike adult cancers, pediatric cancers are not typically acquired through years of exposure to solar radiation, and do not typically develop opportunistically in areas where cells are frequently generated. The term “cancer” describes the shared root cause of pediatric and adult cancers but fails to distinguish the two—far beyond age difference, they are remarkably different diseases.

“Cancer” still serves as the explanation for rare, terminal prognoses and common, more hopeful ones. As the scientific world develops understanding around cancer, the language we use to describe it will evolve to distinguish pediatric from adult cancers, their location, and their severity or treatability. To become more effective, cancer treatments will become more individualized; the progress of these developing options is dependent on the way they are relayed outside of the scientific community.




Tesh, S. N. (1995). Miasma and “social factors” in disease causality: Lessons from the nineteenth century. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 20(4), 1001–1024. https://doi.org/10.1215/03616878-20-4-1001