Over the ages, ignorance and social stigma have fuelled these Cancer myths. Let’s bring Cancer into the light!
Myths are powerful; they attract us and hold us in awe of the unknown. Unfortunately, they can also blind us to factual truths. Cancer myths are especially dangerous because they quickly turn into distorted and self-perpetuating beliefs, like a game of Chinese whispers. Worse, they grow and spread, much like the disease itself.
5 Cancer Myths: Let’s debunk them!
Here are 5 common Cancer myths and their corresponding factual truths. Please keep these in mind during your healing journey, alongside proper medical advice and help.
Cancer Myth #1: Cancer is a death sentence
Renowned Oncologist and Author, Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book ‘The Emperor of all Maladies’ says:
“Every era casts illness in its own image. Society, like the ultimate psychosomatic patient, matches its medical afflictions to its psychological crises; when a disease touches such a visceral chord, it is often because that chord is already resonating.”
The facts suggest otherwise
Most cancers, if detected early, are curable and many patients are known to enjoy long periods of remission. Treatments usually include some combination of surgery, chemotherapy radiotherapy and bio-therapy. In the US for example, death rates from cancer have been going down since the 1990s . This is largely due to early detection and greater screening (more than 50%) for cancers of the breast, cervix, colon and prostate.
Cancer Myth #2: Cancer is punishment
Acclaimed Essayist and Author, Susan Sontag in her book ‘Illness as Metaphor’ says:
“When diagnosed with cancer, the first question that comes to the patient’s mind is “Why me?” as in “It’s not fair!”
Speculations of the ancient world made disease most often an instrument of divine wrath. Judgment was meted out either to a community (in the Iliad, Apollo inflicts the plague on the Achaeans in punishment for an abduction)… or to a single person (the stinking wound in Philoctetes’ foot)”.
Unfortunately, the metaphor of cancer as punishment prevails to this day. In India too, there are many who view cancer as “karmic retribution” (payback for wrong deeds committed in one’s previous life). All this obscures the facts and undermines the effectiveness of the cancer treatment the patient is about to receive.
The facts don’t agree
Cancer is caused by a number of triggers and tendencies, ranging from the environment to lifestyle to gene mutation in our cells, causing them to multiply; it is certainly not punishment. You can do a lot to heal from cancer by making the necessary lifestyle changes and following a holistic and integrated approach.
Cancer Myth #3: Cancer is contagious
There are many heart-breaking stories of cancer patients being quarantined or kept in isolation, to prevent cancer from ‘infecting’ other family members. This habit perhaps derives from the mistaken belief that since cancer can and does spread from one organ or body-part to another, it can also spread from one person to another.
Fact: This is simply not true
- Cancer is caused by uncontrolled cell mutation when one of your own cells escapes its natural, ‘birth-growth-division-death’ cycle. It is certainly not contagious. It does not spread from person to person through physical contact or through the air we breathe.
- A majority of cancers (over 80%) have nothing to do with bacteria or viruses. Yes, there are exceptions. For example, the human papilloma virus (HPV) has been linked to cervical cancer. And even cervical cancer is not contagious.
- Cancer can only spread from person to person through an organ transplant and this too is extremely rare. Doctors take adequate precautions to use different sets of sterilized surgical instruments while conducting such sensitive operation.
Cancer Myth #4: Cancer is hereditary
If someone gets diagnosed with cancer, it is common for their family members to start feeling uneasy (some even panic) due to the perceived risk of ‘family history’. Many medical practitioners also over-estimate this risk … and this can add to the fear.
Fact: Research refutes this conclusively
Cancer is essentially not hereditary. Many studies have shown that
- Genetic factors contribute to only 5-10% of cancers
- In some types of breast cancer or ovarian cancer, specific gene mutations like BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 may lead to a slightly greater risk of cancer in family members
- Even among identical (monozygotic) twins, only 5-10% of cancers are due to an inherited gene defect
- Lifestyle and environmental factors contribute to as many as 90-95% of cancers. Of these,
- 30-35% are linked to diet
- 25-30% to tobacco
- 15-20% to infection & inflammation
- 10-15% to obesity
- Environmental & food pollution, UV radiation, etc. make up the rest
This means your chances of getting cancer are not necessarily higher because your parents or grandparents had it, unless you have inherited a specific gene mutation. Conversely, you are not free from cancer risk, just because no one in your family has suffered from cancer.
Cancer Myth #5: Cancer surgery causes cancer to spread
This probably originated in the 1950’s and 60’s, when early detection and treatment systems hadn’t developed, even in the rich, industrial world. As a result, many people who underwent cancer surgery and found that the cancer had spread to other parts of the body thought that the surgery was the cause or a contributor.
Fact: Detection and surgery more effective now
Today’s modern technology (like PET-CT scans) ensures that not only is the diagnosis more accurate, the surgery too is more effective in excising the cancer.
Lifestyle changes help to prevent occurrence and recurrence of cancer.
If you can take the blindfold off your eyes about these cancer myths, the evidence is clear. Hence, you have much more power than you think. A healthy and wholesome lifestyle is the key. Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Get adequate rest. Avoid smoking and alcohol. And, most importantly, minimise your stress at all levels: physical, emotional, mental, relational and spiritual. A lot is in your hands!
- What are your personal beliefs about these 5 cancer myths?
- How have the facts presented here improved your knowledge and understanding?
- Can you reframe your relationship with cancer on a more factual and scientific basis?
- What lifestyle-related risk factors can you take charge of and work on?
- Emperor of all Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
- Cancer Prevention and Early Detection Facts and Figures 2017-18 on the American Cancer Society website
Geeta Sundaram is a freelance Creative Director, with over 20 years of experience spanning several leading advertising agencies in India. She currently lives in Goa with her parents.