Misconceptions on the nature and treatment of different types of cancer may lead to challenges in decision-making for the patient and his or her physician
By Dr. Ann meredith Garcia Trinidad
Despite the numerous advances being made in the field of cancer, many pervasive myths and misconceptions still continue to exist. In this day and age, the rapid spread of “fake news” is largely fueled by the rise of various social media platforms that allow the instantaneous sharing of information among individuals all over the world. However, this online network of information lacks regulation and allows too much freedom among its users, thereby vastly propagating even false information with the click of a button. And being a globally dreaded disease, it is no wonder that cancer is one of the most popular subjects of such fake news.
Listed and clarified here are some important cancer myths that I continue to encounter both in the clinics and online:
Myth No.1: Cancer is hereditary – “I will get it if it runs in my family.”
Inherited genetic mutations play a major role in only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers, while the remaining majority of cases are called “sporadic” and have nothing to do with one’s family history. In fact, even if a cancer is genetic, it does not automatically follow that one will express that cancer. There are many other factors that can affect the development and expression of cancer, including certain lifestyle factors and environmental exposures.
Myth No. 2: Cancer is contagious.
You cannot catch cancer from interacting with or taking care of someone who has it. However, although cancer itself cannot be spread from person to person, certain infectious microorganisms have been implicated in the development of several types of cancer, such as hepatitis B or C and human papillomavirus (HPV).
Myth No. 3: Sugar feeds cancer.
Sugar has not yet been found to have a direct link with the development or progression of cancer. In fact, all cells in our body—not just cancer cells but also normal cells—require sugar as fuel. Cutting out sugar from one’s diet will not just starve the cancer cells but also the normal cells, forcing them to resort to metabolizing one’s own protein stores from muscle tissues as well as one’s fat stores, eventually resulting in weight loss and a weakened immune system. However, high sugar intake may lead to obesity, which in turn has been linked to certain types of cancer. Hence, moderation – not elimination – of one’s sugar intake is the key.
Myth No. 4: Acidic diets cause cancer.
The acidity or alkalinity (pH) of one’s diet does not affect the pH of one’s blood or body, as the body has its own tightly controlled mechanism that ensures the maintenance of optimal body pH regardless of any external factors. Furthermore, there has been no scientific evidence to date that supports the efficacy of an alkaline diet.
Myth No. 5: ‘Superfoods’ can prevent or cure cancer.
There is no proven food or type of food that can do just this. This is mostly a marketing buzzword used to sell certain health products but has no scientific basis. Instead of focusing on certain specific “superfoods,” maintaining an overall healthy, balanced diet is encouraged.
Myth No. 6: Undergoing biopsy or surgery can cause cancer to grow and spread (because of the exposure of cancer cells to air).
Cancer mainly spreads through the blood or lymphatic system. Undergoing biopsy is important when one has a suspicious mass in order to identify the specific kind of tumor and to prescribe the proper treatment options. Without a biopsy, a patient cannot be properly diagnosed and promptly treated, leaving the cancer free to grow and spread. Furthermore, surgery is a very important treatment modality that has been showed to improve survival in the multidisciplinary management of many types of solid tumors.
Myth No. 7: Any type of chemotherapy is debilitating.
The reality is that some can be, but most are not. This depends on the specific chemotherapy drug/s required, the type and stage of the cancer, and many other factors including age, functional capacity, nutritional status, and the presence of other comorbid illnesses.
Treating cancer using systemic therapies does not utilize a “one size fits all” approach. We, as medical oncologists, evaluate each patient individually in relation to these factors in order to come up with the best treatment plan that the patient will be able to tolerate and complete in order to maximize its benefits in terms of disease control and survival.
We also take into account the patient’s personal preferences in planning their treatment, and we continuously monitor them during and after the course of therapy in order to promptly manage any adverse events that may be encountered. Moreover, most chemotherapy regimens can already be tolerated in the outpatient setting and patients can go home right after their treatment session.
Myth No. 8: Replacing conventional cancer therapy with alternative medicine is a better and safer way to treat cancer.
In a large study recently published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/110/1/121/4064136), patients with non-metastatic breast, prostate, lung or colorectal cancer who chose alternative therapies alone were found to have significantly worse survival than patients who received conventional cancer treatments (i.e., chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and hormone therapy). These patients who received alternative medicine exclusively were noted to have a 2.5 times greater risk of death.
Unfortunately, many alternative treatments have failed to show any convincing scientific or medical evidence of being effective in curing human cancer based on properly conducted studies such as clinical trials. In fact, some of these methods which are largely based on anecdotal evidence or personal testimonials may even do more harm than good, especially when they cause a delay in seeking proper multidisciplinary oncologic care.
Myth No. 9: Drug companies, the government, and the medical profession are conspiring to hide a cure for cancer.
No one in his/her right conscience would withhold a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, cancer is such a complex disease that involves a unique set of gene mutations for every individual tumor, such that there cannot be a single cure for the hundreds of types of cancer that exist. Furthermore, different cancers respond differently to various types of treatment. But despite the huge costs, research in the field of cancer diagnosis, treatment, and prevention continues to be done worldwide in an effort to save more and more patients and to let cancer patients live longer.
Myth No. 10: Cancer is a death sentence.
While cancer may be more difficult to treat compared to most other illnesses, many advancements in the field of cancer research are continuously being made that are now leading to improved survival and quality of life outcomes among cancer patients worldwide. Cancer that is caught early could still be treatable, which is why it is very important to undergo proper cancer screening and to never ignore any unusual bodily symptoms that may point to cancer.
In this age of “fake news,” it is very important to be critical of the whole gamut of information that we encounter daily, especially online. When in doubt, talk to your trusted doctor. As the US Food and Drug Administration advises the general public in order to avoid health fraud scams online: “Be smart, be aware, be careful.” Being knowledgeable and properly informed about healthcare matters can help save lives.
“Cancer is such a complex disease that involves a unique set of gene mutations for every individual tumor, such that there cannot be a single cure for the hundreds of types of cancer that exist”
Sept 2018 Health and Lifestyle