Cancer Myths

March 11, 2013
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In this podcast, we discuss myths about developing, treating, and coping with cancer.  


You’re listening to a podcast from Cancer.Net. This cancer information website is produced by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, known as ASCO, the world’s leading professional organization for doctors that care for people with cancer.

Today we’ll discuss myths about developing, treating, and coping with cancer.   

A vast amount of information about cancer is available online and through other sources. Unfortunately, a lot of this information is misleading or inaccurate, due to false advertising claims, studies that are later disproven, and rumors. In this podcast, we’ll review some of the most common falsehoods.

 Let’s begin by talking about four misconceptions about developing cancer.

The first myth is that cancer is contagious, that it’s capable of spreading from person to person through contact. This is not true. However, some cancers are caused by viruses. For example, the human papillomavirus, also known as HPV, is a sexually transmitted disease that can increase the risk of cervical, anal, and some types of head and neck cancers. Other viruses, such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which are transmitted by infected intravenous needles and sexual activity, increase the risk of developing liver cancer.

The second myth is that you don’t need to worry about cancer if no one in your family has had it. The fact is, only five to ten percent of cancers are hereditary, or passed down by a family member. Most cancers are caused by genetic changes that occur throughout a person’s lifetime. These changes, or mutations, are caused by factors such as tobacco use or ultraviolet, or UV, radiation from the sun. But the chance that a single mutation will cause cancer is small. That’s why cancer is more common in older people, who’ve had a number of mutations build up over a lifetime.

Another myth is that if you have a family history of cancer, then you’ll get it too. Although having a family history of cancer increases your risk of developing the disease, it’s not a definite prediction of your future health. In fact, an estimated four out of ten cancers can be prevented by making simple lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol, and maintaining a healthy weight.

The fourth myth is that hair dyes and antiperspirants can cause cancer. However, there’s no conclusive scientific proof that these items increase the risk of developing cancer.

Now let’s discuss the myths of coping with cancer.

One common myth is that it’s sometimes easier to remain unaware that you have cancer. However, it’s important that you don’t ignore the symptoms or signs of cancer, such as a breast lump or an abnormal-looking mole. While the thought of having cancer is frightening, talking with your doctor and getting a diagnosis gives you the power to make informed choices and seek the best possible treatment. Since treatment is typically more effective in the early stages of cancer, being diagnosed early improves the likelihood of survival.

Another common misconception is that sugar feeds cancer growth. However, there is no conclusive research that proves that eating sugar will make cancer grow and spread more quickly. All cells in the body, both healthy cells and cancer cells, depend on sugar, or glucose, to grow and function. However, providing cancer cells with sugar won't speed up their growth, just as cutting out sugar completely won’t slow down their growth. This doesn’t mean you should eat a high-sugar diet, though. Consuming too many calories from sugar has been linked to weight gain, obesity, and diabetes, which all increase the risk of developing cancer and other diseases.

Many people also believe that positive thinking will help cure cancer. Although a positive attitude can improve your quality of life during cancer treatment, there’s no scientific evidence that it can cure it. In fact, placing such importance on attitude can lead to unnecessary guilt and disappointment if, for reasons beyond your control, your health doesn’t improve.

It also isn’t true that if you’re diagnosed with cancer, then you’ll probably die. Advances in cancer detection and treatment have increased survival rates for most common types of cancer. In fact, more than sixty percent of people with cancer live at least five years or more after their initial diagnosis.

Another myth is that cancer is always painful. While pain is one of the most common side effects of cancer and its treatment, up to ninety-five percent of cancer pain can be successfully managed with medications and other techniques.

And finally, let’s disprove six common myths about cancer treatments.

Myth number one: Drug companies, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or FDA, and the medical establishment are hiding a cure for cancer. The medical community is not withholding a miracle treatment. The fact is, there will not be a single cure for cancer. More than 100 types of cancer exist, and they respond differently to various methods of treatment. And since those who work in the medical field have the same likelihood of developing cancer as the general population, they’re eager for new and better treatments.

Myth number two: Some people are too old for cancer treatment. There is no age limit for cancer treatment, which can be just as helpful for older adults as for younger adults. People with cancer should receive the treatment that’s best suited to their condition, regardless of age. Some older adults may have other illnesses that limit the use of specific treatments, so older adults with cancer are encouraged to talk with their doctor about the best approach for managing their disease. 

Myth number three: Cancer treatment is usually worse than the disease. Although cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, are known to cause side effects that can be unpleasant and sometimes very serious, newer treatments are much better tolerated than in the past. Oncologists always try to balance the known risks and side effects of the treatment with the expected benefits for each patient.

Myth number four: People with cancer can’t stay at home, work, or participate in their usual activities. The truth is, most people are treated on an outpatient basis in their home community, with periodic appointments, rather than an overnight stay at a hospital. They are also able to continue with some or all of their day-to-day activities, despite undergoing cancer treatment.

Myth number five: Everyone with cancer has to have treatment. For some types of cancer found at an early stage or are growing slowly, and your doctor feels that treating the cancer would cause more discomfort than the disease, then your doctor may recommend active surveillance, also known as watchful waiting. During active surveillance, the cancer is monitored closely. If it starts growing or begins causing symptoms, then treatment is always an option.

In other situations, such as advanced cancer, sometimes emotional, social, and spiritual factors may play as big a role as physical concerns. Ultimately, it’s up to the patient to decide whether he or she wants to be treated. However, these decisions should be made after talking with a doctor about the potential risks and benefits of each treatment option. Even if a person decides not to have treatment for the disease, he or she can receive palliative or supportive care to help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.

And, myth number six: If you aren’t offered all of the tests, procedures, and treatments available, then you’re not getting the best cancer care. Not every test, treatment, or procedure is right for every person. You and your doctor should discuss which ones will increase your chance of recovering and help you maintain the best quality of life. 

For accurate information on how cancer develops, as well as cancer treatments and coping with the disease, talk with your doctor or visit Cancer.Net is supported by the Conquer Cancer Foundation, which is working to create a world free from the fear of cancer by funding breakthrough research, sharing knowledge with physicians and patients worldwide, and supporting initiatives to ensure that all people have access to high-quality cancer care. Thank you for listening to this Cancer.Net podcast.