In the oldest written account of cancer, dating back to 3000 BC Egypt, a description of breast cancer cases noted, “There is no treatment.” That may have been true at the time, but scientists and doctors have since developed myriad ways to treat breast cancer. It’s a classic example of a long-established reality: Our understanding of cancer has changed greatly over the years, often destroying what were once firmly held beliefs. Despite evidence to the contrary, though, some myths and misconceptions continue to cloud many people’s views of cancer. Busting those myths and falsehoods may help lead to a better, healthier understanding of cancer and its impact.
Here are seven of today’s most commonly held cancer myths:
Myth: Cancer is an automatic death sentence.
Fact: Advances in cancer treatments and increases in awareness and prevention efforts throughout the years have helped more patients survive the disease than even before, says Dr. Pragatheeshwar Thirunavukarasu, a Surgical Oncologist and Hepatopancreaticobiliary Surgeon at our hospital in Tulsa. This positive trend has even led to a recent shift in many doctors’ mindset. “Cancer is increasingly viewed as a chronic, manageable illness,” he says, “one that’s treated as a condition and one that may be managed as such in many cases.”
Myth: Cancer is contagious.
Fact: Although certain viruses and bacteria, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) and H. pylori bacteria, that are spread from person to person have been linked to cancer, the disease itself is not contagious.
Myth: Everyone with cancer undergoes surgery.
Fact: Surgery isn’t appropriate for every patient or every cancer type. While it may be a first-line treatment for some, it would not be recommended for others. “Our job is to treat the patient,” says Dr. Huan Vu, Medical Directory of Surgery and Surgical Oncologist at our hospital in Tulsa, “and, sometimes, that doesn’t include surgical approaches.”
Myth: Operating on cancer will make it spread.
Fact: Today’s diagnostic tools weren’t around in the 1950s and 1960s, says Dr. Daniel Nader, Chief of the Division of Pulmonary Services at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA). That’s why many people in those days didn’t notice cancer symptoms or undergo surgery to remove their cancer until it had progressed to an advanced stage. “Surgeons would operate, realize the cancer had spread and say there wasn’t anything they could do,” Dr. Nader says. “The patient’s family would assume that air during the surgery had caused the cancer to spread. Many people today still believe that’s the case, but it’s not. The cancer was always there; we just didn’t have the tools to show it.”
Myth: Radiation will burn you.
Fact: In most cases, skin reactions and side effects of radiation therapy are mild, thanks to modern radiation techniques, which use targeted energy to destroy cancer cells in a way that reduces damage to healthy tissues and organs. “It seems like a lot of people have a friend or relative who was ‘burned up’ by radiation, but that’s just not how it works,” says Dr. Douglas Kelly, a Radiation Oncologist at our hospital in Tulsa.
Myth: Clinical trials are highly experimental and risky.
Fact: At their heart, clinical trials are research studies on new treatment approaches that have not yet been definitively proven safe and effective. But by the time they reach the clinical trial stage, they have been tested extensively on cells and animals in a laboratory—and the government has given permission for the trials to be performed on people. These trials are carefully controlled and monitored, by the federal government and third-party experts who make up what’s called an Independent Review Board. All the treatments now being used on cancer patients had to go through clinical trials before the government approved them. While clinical trials take their course, they may offer participating patients treatment options that may not have otherwise been available to them, especially after exhausting conventional treatment approaches.
Myth: Sugar makes cancer grow.
Fact: No conclusive evidence has shown that eating sugar will make cancer grow or spread. Eating a diet high in sugar, though, may lead to weight gain, which has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer and other illnesses.
Misconceptions about cancer may make you feel confused if you’ve been diagnosed or are trying to decide on a treatment plan, but knowing the facts may help make you feel better about the road ahead. “If you receive a cancer diagnosis, you shouldn’t panic,” Dr. Thirunavukarasu says. “You should see a doctor and learn as much as you can about cancer, your specific cancer type and your treatment options.”
Read about seven common chemotherapy misconceptions.