Common cancer myths
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Common cancer myths

Cancer survival is influenced by various factors including the type of cancer, the stage at diagnosis, if the cancer has spread, access to effective treatment and the person’s age, fitness and medical history. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Cancer survival is influenced by various factors including the type of cancer, the stage at diagnosis, if the cancer has spread, access to effective treatment and the person’s age, fitness and medical history. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Each year on February 4, World Cancer Day empowers people across the world to show support, raise a collective voice and take personal action on cancer.

This year marks the launch of the three-year ‘I Am and I Will’ campaign. ‘I Am and I Will’ is an empowering call to action urging for personal commitment and representing the power of individual and collective efforts in a bid to impact the future.

Although the number of cases are increasing, the positive aspect is that more than one third of cancer cases can be prevented and another third can be cured if detected early and treated properly. Indeed, it is estimated that by implementing resource-appropriate strategies on prevention, early detection and treatment, we can save up to 3.7 million lives every year.

Today we know more about cancer and the more we know, the more we can do to reduce risks, enhance prevention and improve on diagnosis, treatment, care and rehabilitation. Cancer is still tied to many myths which can hamper personal empowerment for action.

Myth: there is no effective treatment for cancer

Early diagnosis, early linkage to treatment and modern treatment options greatly reduce the risk of cancer spreading, prolong survival and in many cases cause all signs and symptoms of the cancer to disappear.

Myth: Cancer diagnosis is a death sentence

Cancer survival is influenced by various factors including the type of cancer, the stage at diagnosis, if the cancer has spread, access to effective treatment and the person’s age, fitness and medical history.

Myth: If a person is being treated with radiotherapy, they might be radioactive at work and pose a risk to others around him.

External radiotherapy does not make people radioactive because the radiation does not stay in the body during or after treatment. It is safe for patients to be with colleagues, clients, children and pregnant women after undergoing radiotherapy. There are some situations where implants are used in internal radiotherapy (brachy­therapy). This may cause some people to be radioactive for a short time, depending on whether their implants are temporary or permanent. People should be guided by their doctors as to any precautionsto take.

Myth : Cancer is contagious.

Some people worry that if they have physical contact with someone who has cancer, it could be contagious.

Cancer is not a contagious disease that spreads from person to person. The only situation in which cancer can spread from one person to another is in cases of organ or tissue transplantation. A person who receives an organ or tissue from a donor who had cancer in the past may stand at an increased risk of developing a transplant-related cancer in the future.

However, that risk is very low: about two cases of cancer per 10,000 organ transplants. In fact, the use of organs or tissue from donors who have a history of cancer is avoided.

Some viruses can be linked to cancer, such as the human papillomavirus, which is a known risk factor for cervical cancer, and Hepatitis C, which causes liver cancer. Both viruses can be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, although Hepatitis C is more often transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, such as sharing needles.

Myth: Injuries can cause cancer

Bumps, bruises or other injuries do not lead to cancer. Chronic inflammatory processes may at times increase the risk of certain cancers, but these instances only account for a small fraction of cases.

Myth: Nothing can be done to prevent cancer

Some simple steps can help people reduce their risk of cancer. These include stopping smoking, avoiding exposure to passive smoke, avoiding sun exposure, reducing alcohol consumption, exercising more, keeping a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet with more fruit, vegetables and fibre and less processed meat.

Myth: Thinking positively can cure cancer

Cancer is not a contagious disease that spreads from person to person

There is little evidence to link a positive attitude with a cure for cancer or that having negative thoughts can lead to cancer. However, having a positive attitude can surely help in the psychological adaptation and acceptance process to cope with cancer. People with a positive attitude may be more likely to maintain social connections and stay active. 

Myth : Artificial sweeteners cause cancer

Long-term research has been conducted on the safety of artificial sweeteners (sugar substitutes), such as saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose and neotame. No evidence that they cause cancer in humans has been found.

Myth: Cancer surgery or a tumour biopsy causes cancer to spread

The chance that surgery will cause cancer to spread to other parts of the body is extremely low. Following standard procedures, surgeons use special methods and take many steps to prevent cancer cells from spreading during biopsies or surgery to remove tumours.

Myth: Mobile phones cause cancer

Various studies have been conducted in this area and so far there has been no link. Cancer is caused by genetic mutations of cells, and mobile phones emit a type of low-frequency energy that does not damage genes.

Myth: Anti-perspirants or deodorants cause breast cancer

The best studies so far have found no evidence linking the chemicals typically found in anti-perspirants and deodorants with changes in breast tissue. Some reports have suggested that substances such as aluminium compounds and parabens can be absorbed through the skin through nicks caused by shaving. Evidence to date suggests these products don't cause cancer.

Myth: Hair dye use increases the risk of cancer

There is no convincing scientific evidence that personal hair dye use increases the risk of cancer. Some studies suggest, however, that hairdressers and barbers who are regularly exposed to large quantities of hair dye and other chemical products may have an increased risk of bladder cancer.

It is important to learn more about cancer and dispel myths as misinformation, misconceptions and stigma on cancer create a negative cycle that further stimulates fears.

Such fears will prevent people from seeking early detection, or to delay or avoid treatment and care. 

Prof. Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.

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