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October 09, 2019

Six common cancer myths debunked

A plethora of cancer information exists online but not all of it is factual

Illness Cancer
Cancer myths debunked PA Images/Sipa USA

Numerous myths about cancer exist, fueled by misinformation shared on social media and elsewhere on the internet. Above, radiographers in the United Kingdom help a prostate cancer patient after treatment using a Magnetic Resonance Linear Accelerator machine at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton Surrey.

Many people are affected by cancer, either personally or through a friend or loved one, so there is a plethora of information about cancer available at the click of a mouse. 

People also hold many different beliefs when it comes to cancer. Some unfortunately are based on misconceptions and misinformation.


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Perhaps you have heard things like wearing a bra causes breast cancer or that sugar causes cancer. There is no basis to support the idea that bras cause cancer. In fact, there are published studies that confirm bra wearing does not increase the risk of breast cancer. 

And while overdoing it with sugar can increase your risk of diabetes and obesity (which in turn can increase your risk of certain cancers), sugar itself does not cause cancer.

Let’s take a look at some other common myths about cancer because believing some of these myths might affect your health.

Myth: "No one in my family has ever had cancer, so I’m not at risk.”

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Karen E. Knudsen, Ph.D.

The majority of cancer cases are not hereditary. According to the National Cancer Institute, inherited genetic mutations cause only 5% to 10% of all cancers, which is why no one should ignore symptoms or skip screenings.

If you do have a family history of cancer, you should talk to your doctor because you might want to undergo genetic testing to determine whether you carry a gene mutation that increases your risk of certain cancers such as breast, ovarian, prostate and colorectal.

Additionally, while it is important for everyone to get screened for cancers, those with a family history may need to get screened at an earlier age or consider having additional screening tests than those who do not carry a genetic mutation. Also keep in mind that a family history of cancer does not guarantee a cancer diagnosis.

Myth: “All cancers are preventable.”

We know that certain behaviors — quitting smoking, using sunscreen, eating healthy and exercising — can significantly reduce your risk for certain cancers. Adopting these behaviors is highly encouraged! While risk is reduced, even a healthy lifestyle can’t guarantee you’ll never get cancer. Cancer can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, race, ethnicity, health status and family history.

Additionally, when it comes to diet there are no “superfoods” that prevent cancer. Eating a well-balanced diet can reduce your risk of developing cancer, as well as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other conditions, but there just isn’t a single food that has the power to prevent cancer.

Myth: “Natural remedies can cure cancer.”

We have all seen ads and other information about “all natural cures” for cancer and other diseases. The promise of a cure from an herbal supplement or household product like apple cider vinegar can be very enticing; they usually promise a cure, often without side effects. However, these are not substitutes for traditional cancer treatments, which are backed by years of science-based evidence.

There are studies suggesting that integrative therapies, including herbal supplements, can help patients deal with the side effects of their cancer treatments, but they are not a substitute for medical treatments. If you are interested in complementary therapies, you should always talk to your doctor before taking anything, including herbal supplements and vitamins. Supplements may interfere with medications you might be taking or treatments like chemotherapy and radiation.

Myth: “Cancer only affects older people.”

While it is true that your risk of cancer increases as you get older, age does not mean you are safe from a cancer diagnosis. In fact, researchers have seen a rise in some cancers among people under 50, such as colorectal cancer and melanoma.

You should never ignore anything that you find abnormal, such as rectal bleeding, an abnormal mole, or a lump in your breast. By assuming you are too young to have cancer, you might not get diagnosed until it is at a much later stage and much harder to treat.

Myth: “Cancer is a death sentence.”

Years ago, a person diagnosed with cancer faced a very poor prognosis. This is no longer the case. While even one cancer-related death is one too many, we have very good reason to be positive.

According to the American Association for Cancer Research’s 2019 Cancer Progress Report, the overall rate of cancer death in the United States is decreasing, while the number of survivors is increasing. The report noted that the cancer death rate declined 27 percent from 1991 to 2016, resulting in more than 2.6 million lives saved. Our progress against cancer is evident: there are currently 16.9 million cancer survivors living in the U.S., while in 1971, there were only 3 million.

This progress is a result of incredible discoveries made by scientists and cancer researchers from around the world. Their findings have been translated into clinical practice that has directly benefited patients. We have developed better ways to screen for cancer so that it is detected early, when it is more likely to be treatable. We now have a vaccine for HPV available that can actually prevent cervical cancer and reduce the risk of other cancers, such as head and neck cancer. There are new ways to treat cancer, some of which were not available even 10 years ago, like immunotherapy.

Myth: “Cancer needs to be treated aggressively and immediately.”

Many people believe that you need the most aggressive treatment possible against cancer, but this is not always the case. For example, while radical mastectomies were once the standard treatment for breast cancer, now we rarely perform a radical mastectomy because we have found that less extensive mastectomies are just as effective and in some cases, the patient is able to opt for breast-conserving surgery.

Sometimes the best course of action for certain cancer types or stages is to monitor the cancer. For many prostate cancers, the best course of action can be either “active surveillance” or “watchful waiting” because the cancer is so slow growing that the risks and side effects of treatment outweigh the benefits. According to the American Cancer Society, active surveillance monitors the cancer closely, often through prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood tests and a digital rectal exam. Your doctor only will need to discuss treatment options if the test results change. The patient is treated with watchful waiting, or observation, until they develop symptoms.

Just remember that although it is very easy to find information about cancer, some widely available information out there is inaccurate or even dangerous. It can be challenging to determine whether results from your Google search or a social media post is based on credible evidence. Credible organizations like the National Cancer Institute (NCI), American Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology, NCI-designated cancer centers such as the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson, and reputable medical schools and research universities are your best bets when searching for fact-based information.

Karen E. Knudsen, Ph.D., enterprise director at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Jefferson Health, oversees cancer care and cancer research at all SKCC sites in the Greater Philadelphia region. She writes occasionally on topics related to cancer.

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