Cancer: Myths, Misconceptions and Facts

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The entire human body is made up of trillions of cells, each of which grows old, becomes damaged, dies and new ones replace them as the need arises in the body.

According to the National Cancer Institute of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), cancer is simply the name given to a collection of related diseases. It arises when there is a breakdown in the normal process of cell growth and division described above. The process becomes uncontrollable with the cells becoming increasingly abnormal, old and damaged cells refuse to die and new cells keep getting formed rapidly despite the fact that the body does not need them.  These abnormal cells will continue to divide without stopping and some may grow into masses of tissues called tumors. Others however, like leukemia (cancers of the blood) do not form tumors.

Cancers are generally either benign or malignant in nature. Benign cancers are less aggressive and do not invade surrounding tissues. Despite the fact that they can get quite large, when removed surgically they usually do not grow back. Malignant cancers on the other hand are more aggressive and deadlier, they usually spread to nearby tissues and may even get into the blood / lymphatic system and spread to distant tissues to form new cancers. Malignant tumors sometimes regrow after removal. There are generally three forms of treatment available for cancer patients: Surgery, Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy.

Cancer is a life threatening disease with uncertain prognosis and associated with fears about death and dying. Thus a diagnosis of cancer usually has a devastating effect on not just the patient but also their families and caregivers and it evokes greater emotional reaction than the diagnosis of any other disease.

Like many other disease, cancer is surrounded by many myths and misconceptions. However due to the potentially serious and life threatening nature of this disease, it is imperative that everybody understands the facts behind these misconceptions as much as possible. This article is aimed at addressing as many myths and misconceptions as possible on cancers.

I have obtained these myths and the facts from personal and professional experience as well as culled some from other sources.

Misconception: Cancer is a disease of rich people

Fact: Cancer is a disease of global spread, it affects all socioeconomic groups and according to WHO, 70% of all cancer related deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. Generally speaking, cancer can affect anyone the young and old, the rich and poor, men, women and children.

Misconception: Microwaving food in plastic containers causes release of cancer causing chemicals called dioxins.

Fact: According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), substances used to make plastics can leak into foods during in the microwave. However studies by the FDA have revealed that the levels expected to percolate into foods is well within the margin of safety. There is also no concrete evidence that plastic containers or films contain dioxins.

Misconception: There is no way to prevent cancer.

Fact: This is not true! There are known risk factors associated with the development of cancers. Thus studies have shown that up to Up to 40% of all cancers may be preventable if we avoid tobacco use, alcohol use, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, radiation (including protection from the sun) and environmental pollution.

Misconception: Cancer screening is only recommended for people with high risk of cancer.

Fact: Regular cancer screening is recommended for all adults because early screening and detection of cancerous tissues in the body is by far the best way to prevent untimely and avoidable cancer-induced illness and deaths. Early detection also provides the very best chance for successful cancer treatment and cure.

Misconception: Cancer will always lead to death.

Fact: With early diagnosis, some types of cancer can actually be treated and cured completely. Therefore cancer is a very treatable disease. Alleviation of complications and prolonged survival is also possible even in advanced stage cancer.

Misconception: Taking snuff, chewing tobacco or smoking shisha are safe alternatives to cigarettes.

Fact: Taking snuff, smoking shisha and chewing tobacco are not healthy habits. They are as likely to cause addiction as cigarettes and may cause cancers of the mouth and throat. Depending on the concentration of tobacco, smoking one shisha is equivalent to smoking about 20 – 100 cigarettes.

Misconception: Avoid Chemotherapy drugs because they are likely to cause deaths as the cancer

Fact: Severe complications rarely occur with chemotherapy and when given by experts they are considered to be very safe.

Misconception: Surgery operations can spread cancer throughout the body.

Fact: This will probably be true when doctors could only diagnose the very advanced stages of cancer and the best form of surgery then was exploratory surgeries. However with modern diagnostic equipment, surgeons have a better grasp pre, intra and post surgery of what they are doing and what needs to be done.

Misconception: Most cancers are inherited i.e. genes play a role in cancer.

Fact: It’s estimated that only 5% to 10% of all cancers are truly hereditary, thus for the most part genetic defects leading to cancer occur during the course of life. Exposure to radiation, cigarette smoking and certain medication are known to increase the likelihood of these defective genes arising. There are now tests that can determine if a person with a strong family history of breast or colon cancer carries the altered genes that put him or her at high risk for these diseases.

Misconception: I have smoked for too long, the damage has been done, no point in stopping.

Fact: It’s never too late to quit smoking. Continuing to smoke only increases the risk of dying from tobacco use. Smoking is responsible for 87% of all lung cancer cases and 30% of all cancer deaths. WHO states that tobacco use is the single greatest avoidable risk factor for cancer mortality globally, stressing that it causes an estimated 22 per cent of cancer deaths every year.

Misconception: Cellular phones cause cancer.

Fact: This is a misconception is quite widespread for some reason but the generally it is false. Scientific studies on the relationship between cell phones and brain cancer are difficult to determine for obvious reasons. However, the Danish Cancer Society most recently attempted by the study and they discovered no link between cell phones and brain cancer.

Misconception: All lumps or large masses detected during screenings are cancers.

Fact: Not every abnormal lump in the body is a cancer. Cysts and lipomas, which are lump like swellings in the body, are not cancers. Moreover, certain tumors are benign i.e. non-cancerous.

Misconception: Artificial sweeteners can cause cancer.

Fact: This is the most prevalent food myth associated with cancer, and it shows up as news headlines regularly despite the fact that it is false. There are no studies done that has associated consumption of moderate amounts of artificial sweeteners with cancer. Too much of anything could lead to cancer, but it an excessive amount of the product is required for it to be potentially hazardous.

Misconception: Positive attitude works better in beating cancer, not treatment.

Fact: A good attitude does wonders to help alleviate the enormous burden of a cancer diagnosis. A positive outlook will be of tremendous help during cancer therapy, however, medical intervention has been consistently proven to be the most effective treatment against cancer.

Misconception: Breast cancer affects only women.

Fact: Both men and women have breast tissues, however the fact is that women are 100 times more likely to get breast cancer than men. But it is still possible for men to develop breast cancer.

Misconception: Cancer prevalence is on the rise.

Fact: Several factors are responsible for the seemingly increased cancer diagnosis, such as increased population, longevity (risk for certain cancers increase with age), improved diagnostic capabilities. Also cancer is freely discussed now than it was in the past hence people tend to hear about more often.

Misconception: Conspiracy theories about medical science withholding a cure for cancer.

Fact: This conspiracy theory is definitely false. Any cure for cancer discovered will definitely make enormous amount of money for any pharmaceutical company. Also remember that doctors, pharmacists, scientists and researchers are all prone to developing cancer and they also have families that have and may develop cancer in the future. The Hippocratic Oath is taken by doctors to save lives, would also make withholding a potential cure that can save millions of lives impossible.

Misconception: Antiperspirants can cause cancer

Fact: This misconception is absolutely unfounded. Despite the media repeatedly peddling these claims that antiperspirants are responsible for breast cancer, there is absolutely no scientific evidence backing it up.

Acknowledgements – some information in this article were culled from:

King Hussein Cancer Foundation –



Featured Image: Google Images


Dr Timothy Akinmurele contributed this article.

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