The most common myths and half-truths about cancer

The most common myths and half-truths about cancer

Myth – Cancer is a death sentence

People are often convinced that if they’re diagnosed with cancer that they’ll also die from the disease.  One must remember that each individual’s personal experience also plays a large role in this kind of thinking. It’s possible that the patient has had a close friend who suffered from cancer and perhaps even died after a long and protracted battle with the disease. Naturally, there are many different cases to be considered. However, the situation has drastically improved in the past 20 – 30 years and not just in the United States or the wealthy nations of Europe, but also right here in Latvia. In general, survival rates have increased by five years. The number of people who have been living among us with this disease for multiple years is also increasing. Statistics clearly show this tendency in Latvia – the number of registered cancer patients continues to increase. Some of this can be written off as a sign that more people are being diagnosed, but a portion of these registered patients are simply people who continue to live their lives despite their disease. Of course, one can’t deny that luck also plays a role here, which is determined by the type of tumour one has, the cancer’s level of aggression, its stage as well as treatment possibilities and their availability.

The mortality rate for cancer is its harshest statistic. It’s true that mortality rates are still lagging behind their Western counterparts and this is primarily at the expense of late diagnoses when tumours have already spread. This is why state-sponsored cancer screenings and the so-called Green Corridor (expedited examinations and treatment for cancer patients) have been proven to reduce mortality rates and the number of full-blown cancer diagnoses. On the other hand, if a patient dies an agonising death, then this usually happens because the patient’s family and his doctors can’t agree on the proper method of care. We must understand that help is always available, even in the late stages of cancer. No one should die in agony and pain.

Cancer is contagious

It may surprise you, but even in today’s society the myth that cancer can be contagious is still widespread. Cancer isn’t contagious in the way that we often think of infectious diseases. You can’t get infected by cancer by being in contact with a cancer patient and those who have cancer pose absolutely no threat to other people. This is why the notion that someone with cancer can be dangerous to others is simply ludicrous. A certain psychological barrier is more understandable, because it’s in our nature to avoid situations that are emotionally taxing, which is why the majority of us try to separate ourselves from such circumstances. In any event, we should be with our friends and family who are suffering from cancer and we shouldn’t prohibit children from visiting them either.

Cancer is a hereditary disease

One of the most enduring myths regarding cancer is that if someone within their family has had cancer that sooner or later they’ll also get cancer. Genetically inherited cancer has been proven in only 5 – 10% of all cases. In all of the other cases, the disease has developed over the course of a person’s life and this had no connection to their ancestors. Today it’s difficult to create a genealogical (family) tree, because families are so small and difficult to trace. You could consider the possibility of a hereditary link to cancer if your blood relatives have been diagnosed with cancer at an early age (under 50), with a number of different tumours and if malignant tumours have been diagnosed in more than three of your blood relatives in the past two generations.

Cancer – it’s fate

Many people still believe that if it’s their fate to get cancer and perhaps even die from it, then there’s nothing that they can do and it will eventually happen. In reality, there are many things that can be done to reduce the risk of cancer. It’s widely accepted that if you live in a normal, developed society today (not in extreme poverty, but in a society with average or advanced development), nearly half of the cases of cancer could be avoided. What are the risk factors that could increase your chance of getting cancer? They include smoking, consuming alcohol, improper diet, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity. Furthermore, vaccination against hepatitis and the human papilloma virus, a healthy and balanced diet as well as participation in cancer screening programmes are all methods by which you can minimise the possibility of getting cancer. Screening programmes are particularly important, because although they can’t prevent cancer, they do reduce mortality rates for the disease, because the earlier it is detected, the greater the chance the patient will survive. For all of these reasons, cancer should not be considered one’s fate, but rather a result of a variety of internal and external factors that affect our bodies. It can’t be denied that this malignant disease also affects small children, teenagers and young people, for whom the above-mentioned factors don’t seem to apply. We must, however, understand that every illness, including cancer, has its exceptions. Moreover, we should take into account that, not unlike the rest of the world, in Latvia nearly 90% of all tumours develop in people over the age of 50.

Just by mentioning cancer, we can tempt fate and contract the disease

People’s superstition and bias can sometimes be astounding. Some even avoid talking about horrible diseases fearing that they might tempt fate. They have no problem discussing their experiences with injuries, other illnesses and even operations, but the topic of cancer is taboo. People tend not to talk about it or if they do it’s mentioned in hushed tones or innuendos. In reality, it should be the exact opposite. We should talk about cancer, because the more we discuss it in a frank manner, the less we will give into our worst irrational fears. I often think that patients often feel guilty or embarrassed when talking about their illness, as if it they were somehow different or the disease was somehow their fault. This can lead to their marginalisation in their own eyes and in those of others and this can’t be permitted. I’ve noticed that a well-informed patient is more likely to perceive any potential problems or deviations throughout the course of their illness in a much calmer manner.

Cancer treatments are dangerous

I’m often faced with cases where a patient refuses treatment, because they’ve heard or read horror stories about how surgery mutilates, radiation burns and chemotherapy poisons the body. These patients are convinced that if the cancer doesn’t kill them, the treatment certainly will. Unfortunately, some patients who believe these stories refuse traditional treatments. We have to remember that cancer is a disease like any other and that today it can be treated. Even if it can’t be completely cured, it can be stabilised and any potential pain can certainly be alleviated. Treatment can take an enormous physical and psychological toll on us and can be quite complicated. Our goal is always to prolong the lives of our patients and to ensure that the time they have left with us is spent with a good quality of life. Unfortunately, many people try to get rich off of these fears and make all kinds of promises: we can restore your health, save or maintain your life or even cure the cancer entirely. They not only offer alternative and non-traditional treatment methods, but also contemporary treatments such as new drugs, none of which have ever been proven to completely cure metastatic cancer anywhere in the world. The saddest part is that people who have this grave condition don’t always want to hear the truth or the fact that the treatments available today won’t be an easy solution, but can definitely help.

Cancer is the result of a modern lifestyle

Stressful days, long hours at work and a polluted environment… It’s often believed that people who don’t live a modern lifestyle also don’t get cancer. In reality, cancer isn’t an illness caused by civilisation, at least not by the traditional definition of the word. Cancer is as old as civilisation itself and it was even present millions of years before humans even existed in ancient fossils. However, cancer only became a notable societal problem at the end of the 19th century. Society suddenly realised that cancer was a significant cause of death, not far behind infections and violent deaths. This was a major turning point, because cancer had suddenly become a problem. Naturally, the notion that people who live quiet lives in secluded forest cabins in tune with nature are also not at risk of developing cancer simply isn’t true. Everyone is at risk of developing an oncological disease – both those who live in an idyllic setting, as well as those who live in the world’s biggest cities. Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can strike anyone regardless of socioeconomic status or location.

Eating sweets promotes cancer growth

The belief that sugar promotes cancer growth is somewhat popular. Patients often ask me if they’re allowed to eat sweets or sugar at all. This notion is probably a result of research, which has shown that glucose is metabolised much faster and more intensively in cancer cells. This was already observed in the 1920s by the German scientist Otto Warburg. A layperson might come to the conclusion that since cancer metabolises glucose so quickly that one could hamper or perhaps completely stop the progress or growth of a tumour simply by starving it of sugar. In reality, it’s not quite that simple. The consumption of sugar doesn’t significantly affect the course of the disease. Sugar intake does, however, affect a person’s metabolism in general. By eating or drinking sweetened products you are at risk of gaining extra weight, which in turn does, in fact, promote the development of certain types of malignant tumours. In this very specific way, sugar can be a factor, but it’s safe to eat or drink it within reason.

Mobile phones and other new technologies cause cancer

Another popular myth is that mobile phones and other technologies such as computers, a variety of electronic appliances and the electromagnetic radiation, which they create can cause cancer. It’s believed that the magnetic fields created by these devices, which we use for several hours each day, negatively affect our health. In reality, we would have to produce studies for the next 20 to 30 years to prove any kind of concrete clinical link between the two. The studies that are available today simply don’t bear this out.


Cancer can be cured with supplements, vitamins and diets

No matter how tempting this may sound, none of the above-mentioned methods can cure cancer. However, I support nearly any method used in conjunction with traditional therapy if it improves or alleviates a patient’s condition. We can’t deny that a healthy diet, vitamin complexes and food additives can play a large role when a patient is battling cancer and is exposed to a number of diagnostic and treatment methods. They can all help a patient to recover more quickly, to regain energy and to improve their general well-being. However, none of these actually treat cancer or remove cancer cells. In the 21st century we must finally accept that if some miracle cure had been invented, which cures cancer without surgery, radiation or chemotherapy and which could be bought for an exorbitant price at a pharmacy, shop, on the internet or even on the black market, that none of the world’s rich or famous would suffer from cancer. The fact remains that cancer doesn’t discriminate between rich or poor and it attacks huts and hovels as well as castles, where the day-to-day lives of the people inside may differ, yet the result of the disease is often all too similar.

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