February 3, 2013 | by Tami Dennis
On World Cancer Day, we should be relieved that a diagnosis of cancer is no longer discussed in a whisper. But that doesn’t mean we know all we should about the disease – or that we don’t suffer due to persistent misconceptions or, rather, myths connected to it.
This year’s World Cancer Day observance is focused on cancer myths and the damage they can cause.
The observance group is focusing on these four myths: Myth 1: Cancer is just a health issue. Myth 2: Cancer is a disease of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries. Myth 3: Cancer is a death sentence. Myth 4: Cancer is my fate.
But the misconceptions don't stop there. Two City of Hope experts reveal just how deep, and illogical, are some of the public's myths about the group of diseases known as cancer.
Smita Bhatia, M.D., M.P.H. – Ruth Ziegler Chair in Population Sciences; chair of the Department of Population Sciences; director of the Center for Cancer Survivorship at City of Hope:
Myth: Cancer survivors do not need specialized follow-up five years after diagnosis.
Bhatia: “Cancer survivors are at risk for long-term complications related to the treatment used for their primary cancer. It is important that cancer survivors remain connected with the specialized programs that understand the full scope of these complications, and can perform appropriate screening to detect these complications early.” Myth: Cancer survivors’ children are at risk of congenital abnormalities.
Bhatia: “While the survivors might fear that the toxic therapy that they received might affect their offspring adversely, several large studies have demonstrated that the children born to cancer survivors do not have an excess risk of developing congenital abnormalities.”
Cy A. Stein, M.D., Ph.D. – Arthur and Rosalie Kaplan Chair and Professor of the Department of Medical Oncology and Therapeutics Research at City of Hope:
Myth: When air touches cancer it grows faster. Ergo, don't do surgery on cancers because not only will the cancer grow faster, but the surgery will also cause the cancer cells to metastasize faster.
Stein: “Yes, there really are people who believe this but, to do so, they also have to believe that doctors prescribe treatments they know to be harmful to patients.”
Myth: The reason cancer hasn't been eliminated is because cures have been withheld by big pharma in order to maximize their profits.
Stein: “Of course, the profits, to say nothing of the fame, prestige and adulation that would accrue to any organization that could actually "cure" cancer, doesn't enter the thoughts of believers of this myth.”
Myth: All men over a certain age have prostate cancer.
Stein: "Just because you're old, it doesn't mean you're necessarily going to have prostate cancer. The vast majority of men never get it. The problem is that we can't tell prospectively who will get it and who won't. A belief like this also tends to promote either a fatalistic attitude or, on the other hand, an attitude of 'Why should I bother if everyone has it?'"
Myth: If you enter any clinical trial you are therefore, necessarily, a guinea pig.
Stein: This is a very prevalent belief among racial minorities – it originates from the Tuskegee fiasco, now decades ago, and prevents believers from potentially benefiting from recent advances in treatment.
Myth: If you eat right, exercise right and live right, your chances of getting cancer are therefore eliminated.
Stein: “Wrong. The best way to avoid cancer is to choose your parents wisely.”
That was a joke, mostly. Stein acknowledged that – although genes are important – they’re not destiny either. The American Cancer Society offers the guide Genetic Testing: What You Need to Know, and City of Hope's +Cancer Screening & Prevention Program can help you understand your risks.
For more myth busting, go to the World Cancer Day website. It offers the facts about the organization's favorite, or least-favorite, myths.
City of Hope's Roberta Nichols contributed to this article.