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For Everyone Touched By Cancer

20 Cancer Myths And Controversies 

Written by Oluwatoyin Joy Oke on 
1st September, 2022
Updated: 29th January, 2024
Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

It may is sometimes hard to separate common cancer myths from reality

Unless a person has been diagnosed with cancer or has been close to someone with cancer it can be hard to separate common cancer myths from reality. Most information starting with “they said” or “I heard” are mostly myths. Fake news can be ugly and deceptive. Some popular ideas about how cancer begins and spread, although scientifically inaccurate, might seem logical, since the ideas are deeply rooted.

These cancer misconceptions can lead to unnecessary worry and even stand in the way of making good decisions about prevention and treatment.

While some information is certainly important in the understanding of cancer, misinformation is not. This article unravels 20 common cancer myths.

Common Cancer Myths

Myth 1: A cancer diagnosis is a death sentence

Fact: It is understood that cancer is a deadly disease. Recent statistics show that cancer is the second leading cause of death after cardiovascular disease. And if you are diagnosed with cancer, it does not mean you must die.

According to the annual statistics released by the American Cancer Society, the risk of dying from cancer in the United States has declined over the past 28 years. Also based on sources from the Cancer Research UK, “cancer survival rates have doubled over the last 40 years.”

The national cancer institute added that the five-year survival rates for cancers, such as breast cancer, prostate and thyroid are 90% or more. These survival rates for all cancer patients together is currently around 67%. Improved cancer cells study has helped scientist understand cancer, this has helped in the development of better cancer treatment and has increased survival rates.

Different factor contribute to a better cancer prognosis as early detection, increased support groups, improvement in the treatment options available. There is also improvements in the side effects and the introduction of robotic and artificial intelligence has improve surgery outcomes.

Myth 2: There is no cure for cancer

Thankfully, this is also a myth. As medical science delves deeper into the mechanisms behind cancer, treatments steadily grow more effective.

Some cancers, such as testicular and thyroid cancer, have a 60% cure rate. Breast, prostate, and bladder also have cure rates of around 50%.

It is imperative that patients who are diagnosed with cancer, even at an advanced stage, do not lose hope: there are many effective, novel 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 are curable, and 50% of patients with stage 4 colon cancer metastatic to the liver can be cured with a combination of chemotherapy and surgery.

 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, 

Myth 3: Cancer cures are being denied to the public

 Is it at all plausible that a highly-skilled workforce dedicates the better part of their time and energy into finding “cures for cancer” just to throw them away the next moment? Can people who spend their lives studying the intricacies of tumours truly not understand that cancer is a looming threat to all of us – including their own friends, families and themselves? What human being, no matter how selfish, doesn’t have at least a sense of self-preservation, would not really work to prevent and cure cancer? Is it really possible to think even for a moment that any scientist is putting his or her life to the service of a false goal?

Fact: Cancer Research and Treatment Organizations are continuing progress in fighting cancer. However, treatments need to be done in an expedited manner to ensure their safety. Developing effective and safe medicines often requires long delays to reach markets. It is not connected to theories about population control by disease or restricted funding.

Myth 4: Living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Fact: Smoking causes more disability and premature deaths than air pollution, all of which are completely avoidable. Additionally, medical problems caused by smoking tend to arise at a younger age than health issues from exposure to air pollution.

Myth 5: Artificial sweeteners cause cancer

Fact: Artificial sweeteners contain no substances causing cancer. Almost everything is regulated by the FDA. Several studies have shown that cyclamate, combined with saccharin, causes bladder cancer in humans. Studies show no direct effects on human health from these sugar substitutes. It's essentially just another method of sucking foods out of their natural sweetness.

Studies on artificial sweeteners, including saccharin and aspartame, have shown no convincing evidence of an association with cancer. Earlier cancer scares linked with certain sweeteners have been discredited. Researchers have conducted studies on the safety of the artificial sweeteners (sugar substitutes) saccharin (Sweet 'N Low®, Sweet Twin®, NectaSweet®); cyclamate; aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet®); acesulfame potassium (Sunett®, Sweet One®); sucralose (Splenda®); and neotame and found no evidence that they cause cancer in humans. All of these artificial sweeteners except for cyclamate have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for sale in the United States. For more information, see the NCI fact sheet on Artificial Sweeteners and Cancer.

Myth 6: Harmful chemicals in burnt food cause cancer

You might’ve read about a possible link between acrylamide and cancer. But there isn’t enough good quality evidence to show this. For example, some studies aren’t able to accurately measure the amount of acrylamide in people’s diets. But the World Cancer Research Fund has carried out a review of studies in people, and found no link between acrylamide in food and cancer. More research is needed but, in the meantime, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet – together with not smoking and keeping active, are the most effective ways to reduce your cancer risk.

Myth 7: You can prevent skin cancer by putting on one application of sunscreen at the start of each day.

Generally, sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, especially after swimming or sweating.

If you work indoors and sit away from windows, you may not need a second application. Be mindful of how often you step outside, though. Keep a spare bottle of sunscreen at your desk just to be safe. Even a short stroll at lunch could put your skin at risk.

Myth 8:  Cell Phones Cause Cancer

Using mobile phones does not increase the risk of cancer. And there aren't any good explanations for how mobile phones could cause cancer.

You might have heard rumours that electromagnetic radiation or electromagnetic waves from phones are dangerous. But the radiation that mobile phones or phone masts transmit and receive is very weak. It does not have enough energy to damage DNA so is highly unlikely to be able to cause cancer.

Keeping your mobile phone close to your body, including in a pocket or your bra, does not increase the risk of breast cancer.

Research is continuing to make sure there aren’t any potential long-term effects on cancer risk, but none have been found so far.

Myth 9:   A person’s “attitude” is linked to their  risk of developing or dying from cancer

To date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that links a person’s “attitude” to his or her risk of developing or dying from cancer. If you have cancer, it’s normal to feel sad, angry, or discouraged sometimes and positive or upbeat at other times. People with a positive attitude may be more likely to maintain social connections and stay active, and physical activity and emotional support may help you cope with your cancer. For more information, see the NCI fact sheet on Psychological Stress and Cancer.

Myth 10: Sugar causes / feeds cancer

Although research has shown that cancer cells consume more sugar (glucose) than normal cells, no studies have shown that eating sugar will make your cancer worse or that, if you stop eating sugar, your cancer will shrink or disappear. However, a high-sugar diet may contribute to excess weight gain, and obesity is associated with an increased risk of developing several types of cancer. For more information, see the NCI fact sheet on Obesity and Cancer.

Myth 11: Following a vegan diet reduces the risk of developing cancer

Following a vegan diet means only eating plant-based foods and avoiding all animal products including meat, dairy and eggs.

There is no direct evidence that following a vegan diet reduces the risk of developing cancer. However, there are many characteristics of a healthy vegan diet that align with our Cancer Prevention Recommendations – such as eating lots of wholegrains, pulses, fruit and vegetables, and avoiding red and processed meat.

This is not only because plant-based foods contain fibre, which protects against bowel cancer, but including more plant-based food in the diet can also help people to maintain a healthy weight – and being overweight or obese increases the risk of 12 types of cancer.

We also know that eating red and processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer. There is no evidence to suggest consuming white meat or fish increases the risk of cancer.

Myth 12: Injury, trauma, a blow  to the breast or underwire bras cause breast cancer

Injury, trauma, or a blow to the breast does not cause cancer.

There’s also no good explanation for how an injury could cause cancer in breast tissue

If someone has an injury or blow to the breast, they might check it themselves or have it checked by a health professional. If there’s already a cancer in the area, these checks could find it. This doesn’t mean that the injury has caused the cancer.

Sometimes an injury can cause a lump that’s not cancer. This can be bruising or scar tissue that can form when the body naturally repairs itself. There’s no evidence to suggest that these lumps increase the risk of cancer, but they may need treatment if they don’t go away on their own.

If you notice a change to the look or feel of your breasts, or anything else that’s not normal for you, tell your doctor. It probably won’t be breast cancer, but it’s important to have it checked.

Myth 13: Coffee increases cancer risk

There is no strong evidence that coffee increases cancer risk, but there is strong evidence that coffee can actually reduce the risk of womb (endometrial) and liver cancer. However, we cannot make any specific recommendations because there are too many unanswered questions – for example, are the benefits a result of drinking coffee regularly, or in large amounts? There is also no evidence on the effects of adding milk and/or sugar, or on drinking caffeinated, decaffeinated, instant or filter coffee.

For general health, research from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) shows it is safe for healthy adults, including pregnant women, to drink single doses of up to 200mg of caffeine. Drinking up to 400mg of caffeine through the day does not raise safety concerns in the general population, which is equal to around four cups of filter coffee a day.

Myth 14: Eating foods grown on farms that use pesticides or herbicides increases cancer risk.

Both organic and conventional food have to meet the same legal food safety requirements. Before pesticides are approved they are rigorously assessed to ensure they do not pose an unacceptable risk to human health or the environment, and that any pesticide residues left in food will not be harmful to consumers.

Pesticide residues in the food chain are also monitored to check they are within legal and safe limits. Additives are also subject to rigorous, pre-market safety assessments before they can be used in foods. Their use is controlled by legal limits, which ensures consumption does not exceed safe levels.

Myth 15: Eating genetically modified (GM) foods causes cancer.

There’s no evidence that genetically modified (GM) foods cause cancer in humans. And there aren’t any good explanations for how GM foods could cause cancer.

In the US, where GM foods are more common, they haven’t seen more cases of cancer linked to their introduction in the 1990s.

You don’t need to avoid GM foods to reduce your risk of cancer but because GM foods are relatively new, research continues to make sure that there aren’t any long-term health effects.

Myth 16: Antiperspirants or deodorants cause cancer

The best studies so far have found no evidence linking the chemicals typically found in antiperspirants and deodorants with changes in breast tissue. For more information, see the NCI fact sheet on Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer.

Myth 17 : What someone does as a young adult has little effect on their chance of getting cancer later in life.

A quarter of people believe this to be true, probably because cancer is (quite rightly) seen as a disease of old age. But that doesn’t mean that our actions as young adults have no bearing on our later risk. For example, smokers have higher risks of cancer the more years they spend smoking. So unless they quit, the cigarettes they smoke in early life will add to their risk later on.

And in many cases, risky behaviours in early life can lead to risky behaviours in later life.

Myth 18: Herbal medicines can cure cancer

There is no evidence that any herbal medicines can cure or treat cancer. Although some studies suggest that alternative or complementary therapies, including some herbs, may help patients cope with the side effects of cancer treatment, no herbal products have been shown to be effective for treating cancer. In fact, some herbal products may be harmful when taken during chemotherapy or radiation therapy because they may interfere with how these treatments work. Cancer patients should talk with their doctor about any complementary and alternative medicine products—including vitamins and herbal supplements—they may be using. For more information, see Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Myth 19: Cancer is contagious

Cancer is not contagious. Someone with cancer cannot spread it to others.

However, some sexually transmitted diseases, including human papillomavirus (HPV)Trusted Source and hepatitis B and C, can cause cancers in the cervix and the liver. In these cases, an infectious agent causes the cancer, but the cancer itself is not contagious.

As an interesting aside, 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.

Myth 20: Cancer is a human-made disease

Cancer isn't one of the problems humans create. Cancer existed before we knew it— as old as the dinosaur ages. The femur of one of our earliest turtle ancestors found with bone tumor evidence. Cancer is increasingly common today due to the improved tools and a better lifespan.

Further reading

Myths and controversies about what causes cancer

Cancer Conspiracy Theories: A Scientists View Point

Medical myths: All about cancer

Common Cancer Myths and Misconceptions

Cancer Myths

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