May is National Cancer Research Month, a time to call attention to the ongoing work of scientists devoting their lives to understanding and treating cancer. Here we cover 10 myths related to cancer to help people break through a maze of misinformation.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer was responsible for 10 million deaths worldwide in 2020. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide.
In the United States, an estimated 39.5% of people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.
Myths tend to develop around very common conditions. It is therefore no surprise that people often misunderstand cancer.
“Cancer” is a collective term for a group of diseases that can affect any part of the body. This variety adds fuel to the fires of confusion.
In this article, we hope to dispel some of the myths and clarify this common and diverse group of diseases.
Cancer is not a death sentence. Despite the sobering statistics quoted above, cancer isn’t always terminal.
As scientists better understand cancer and develop improved treatments, the recovery rate continues to improve.
For example, in January 2019, an estimated 16.9 million cancer survivors lived in the United States. In the UK, chances of survival have doubled over the past 40 years.
It’s also worth noting that survival rates vary considerably depending on the type of cancer. For example, in the UK, the survival rates for testicular cancer are 98%, while the survival rates for pancreatic cancer are only 1%.
According to the National Cancer Institute:
“In the United States, the risk of dying from cancer has steadily declined since the 1990s. Now, the 5-year survival rates for some cancers, such as breast, prostate, and thyroid cancer, are 90% or better. The 5-year survival rate for all cancers combined is currently about 67%. “
In general, death rates from cancer are slowly declining, although the survival rates of some cancers are increasing more than others. An annual report on the status of cancer in the US, to be published in Cancer in 2020, concludes:
“[C]Ancer’s death rate fell an average of 1.5% per year during 2001 through 2017. “
This is a myth. Cancer is not contagious. Someone with cancer cannot spread it to others.
However, some sexually transmitted diseases, including human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B and C, can cause cancer of the cervix and liver. In these cases, an infectious agent causes the cancer, but the cancer itself is not contagious.
As an interesting side note, scientists have documented that cancers in some animals, including Tasmanian devils and dogs, can cause fatal transmissible cancers: devil facial tumor disease and canine transmissible venereal tumor, respectively.
To date there is no evidence that cell phones cause cancer. One of the reasons this myth originated is that these devices emit radio frequency (radio waves), a form of non-ionizing radiation. The body absorbs this radiation.
Scientists know that exposure to ionizing radiation, such as X-rays, increases the risk of cancer. However, radio frequency radiation is non-ionizing radiation, which does not increase the risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute writes:
“[A]While many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, cell phones, and other sources, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans. “
This is also a myth. The extremely low frequency magnetic fields (ELF) produced by power lines are non-ionizing and therefore do not cause cancer.
The American Cancer Society writes:
“Several large studies have looked at the possible effects of ELF magnetic fields on cancer in rats and mice. These studies expose the animals to magnetic fields that are much stronger than humans are normally exposed to at home […]. Most of these studies have not found an increase in the risk of any cancer. In fact, the risk of some cancers was even lower in the animals exposed to the ELF radiation. “
However, the American Cancer Society also explains that some studies have found a slight increase in the risk of leukemia for children who live close to power lines. However, the reasons for this remain unclear.
Medical News Today Spoke with Dr. Joel Newman, a haematologist advisor and specialist pathology leader at East Sussex Healthcare Trust in the UK. He puts the risk into perspective:
“We don’t have any real evidence that cell phones or power lines cause cancer, and there are many other things we do every day that put us at much greater risk than ever before, including smoking and alcohol consumption.”
To date, there is no good evidence that artificial sweeteners increase the risk of cancer.
The National Cancer Institute explains why this myth may have originated:
“Questions about artificial sweeteners and cancer arose when early studies showed that cyclamate in combination with saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals.”
However, they explain that further studies “have not provided clear evidence of a link with cancer in humans. Likewise studies from others [Food and Drug Administration (FDA)]-approved sweeteners have not shown clear evidence of a link with cancer in humans. ”
Likewise, a study of aspartame and cancer, which included data from more than half a million participants, found no association between “aspartame consumption and lymphoma, leukemia, or brain cancer.”
This is only partial myth. It is true that cancer surgery can spread the cancer, but this is rare. As the American Cancer Society explains:
“Advances in equipment used during surgery and more detailed imaging tests have helped to keep this risk very low.”
A related myth indicates that a tumor will grow faster or spread to other parts of the body when exposed to the air. This is not true.
There is no evidence that herbal remedies can cure or treat cancer.
However, some people find that certain alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, meditation, and yoga, help with the psychological stress associated with cancer and some of the side effects of cancer treatment.
As the National Cancer Institute points out, just that something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe. In some circumstances, herbal supplements can harm a person’s health; they give a few examples:
“[S]Several studies have shown that kava kava, an herb some people use to help with stress and anxiety, can cause liver damage. And St. John’s wort, which some people use for depression, can keep certain cancer drugs from working as well as they should. “
It is important that people with cancer talk to a doctor about supplements and vitamins before taking them.
Although some cancers are genetically transmitted through families, they make up the minority of cases: an estimated 3–10% of cancers are the result of mutations inherited from the parents.
Because people are more likely to develop cancer as they age, and people live longer lives today, it is not uncommon for people to have relatives who develop cancer. This could help explain why this myth persists.
Most cancers are due to a build-up of mutations in genes that accumulate over time. As the American Cancer Society explains:
“Some cancers run in families, but most cancers are not clearly linked to the genes we inherit from our parents. Gene changes that start in a single cell over the course of a person’s life cause the most cancers. “
To answer this question, MNT spoke with Dr. Collin Vu, a medical oncologist and hematologist at MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. He said:
Fortunately for all of us, this statement is a myth and not at all true. Current therapies for cancers are improving to the point where cancer cures – that is, treatments that will kill cancer completely – are constantly improving. “
However, he explains that the topic is complicated because “different cancers have markedly different healing powers, and different cancers also have different time frames for which a cancer can typically recur. [This] makes it very difficult for patients to know when they can really be ‘cured’ or when they are still at high risk of cancer recurrence. “
Dr. Vu has great hopes for the future of cancer treatment; he told MNT:
“In the future, with current scientific advances in better treatments for cancer, and better public awareness of cancer risk and diagnosis, the claim that ‘cancer always comes back’ could become even more of a myth.”
Fortunately, this is also a myth. As medical science delves deeper into the mechanisms behind cancer, treatments are becoming more effective.
According to Dr. Vu, some cancers, such as testicular cancer and thyroid cancer, have a cure rate of 60%. Dr. Vu defines the cure rate as “the population of cancer patients who have the same life expectancy as the general population”.
Breast, prostate, and bladder also have about 50% cure rates. Dr. Vu concludes:
“As the above data shows, some cancers can be eradicated, but unfortunately not all cancers can be completely cured. There is persistent optimism that the cure rate is increasing, given the continued focus on screening and better treatments for cancer. “
MNT also spoke with Dr. Anton Bilchik, Ph.D., a surgical oncologist, professor of surgery, chief of gastrointestinal research, and chief of medicine at Saint John’s Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA . He also leads with a message of hope:
“It is imperative that patients diagnosed with cancer, even at an advanced stage, do not lose hope: there are many effective new therapies as well as more effective surgical techniques. A good example is with the use of modern immunotherapy, up to 40% of patients with stage 4 melanoma can be cured, and 50% of patients with stage 4 colon cancer that has spread to the liver can be cured with a combination of chemotherapy and surgery. “
In short, while the fight against cancer is underway, science is making significant progress.