Cancer is responsible for nearly 9 million deaths annually and accounts for over 15% of deaths from all causes today.1 Almost every reader is aware of someone that cancer has directly affected. Yet, there are many myths about cancer that persist – mostly based on fear and misinformation. Let facts replace fear.
Myth 1: Cancer is a death sentence
Cancer is, for a good reason, a feared disease. It is far from an automatic death sentence, however. Cancer survival rates have been steadily climbing since the 1990s.2 Treatments are continually improving, both in terms of efficacy as well as tolerability. At the individual level, the prognosis will vary widely based on the type of cancer, the stage at which it was found, and the patient’s overall health.
Myth 2: There’s one cure to defeat them all…
This myth is important to dispel, as many cancer patients fall victim to extravagant but fraudulent claims of miracle cures. These claims incorrectly assume that cancer is a singular disease – and that they have the magical silver bullet solution to beat all cancers.
Cancer refers to a group of cells that grow uncontrollably due to gene mutation. Perhaps due to the convention of adding a prefix to denote where cancer first originated (lung cancer that has spread elsewhere is still called lung cancer), we tend to think of cancer as a singular disease. The National Cancer Institute explains that there are more than 100 unique cancers, and the term cancer refers to related but not identical diseases.3 While there may be enough similarities between all cancers that there will be an effective treatment for all cancers in the future,4 that day is not today. Today, we rely heavily on surgery and chemotherapy to treat cancers. In the future, this may change so that there is a more general cure, but this is not a promise, nor does the available evidence suggest that this is even likely.
Myth 3: …and Big Pharma is hiding cancer cures for profit
This combines two misconceptions – that there is a singular cure for cancer (myth 2) and that profit motives favor withholding a major discovery in medicine – among many other improbable hypotheticals – like all pharmaceutical companies working in sync.
Myth 4: We’re losing the war on cancer
The National Cancer Act of 1971 is often colloquially called “The War on Cancer.” It may feel like we are losing the war. Most of us know of a friend or family member who has been affected by cancer. Part of the problem with the metaphor of war is that we tend to view war as an all-or-nothing proposition, and anything short of eradication/cure can seem like a loss.
The reality is that the medical community is learning more every year, and treatments are becoming more effective. Survival rates are up, and the overall prognosis is improving for the majority of cancers. Indeed, there is much more to learn before we can cure all cancers, but we are definitely doing much better every decade.
Myth 5: Cancer is a modern disease
Cancer is ancient,5, and it’s also natural. Civilization did not cause cancer. Many of us are left with the impression that cancer is a modern phenomenon or more exposed to various artificial sources of carcinogens in the modern world. While there are certainly some carcinogens that are unique to the modern world, but that’s a very small part of the overall picture.
The truth is that cancer is a disease of old age. The vast majority of cancers occur in patients 50 years or older. The biggest risk factor for cancer is simply getting old. As we live longer, we are more likely to live until cancer becomes statistically likely, and we are becoming better at finding the cancers. This can bias us into believing that cancers are becoming more common than in the past.
Myth 6: Cancer incidence is rising
Strictly speaking, this is true, but it might not mean what you think it means. Today, nearly half of us can be expected to receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in our life, up from an oft-quoted lifetime risk of 1 in 3.6
The largest reason for this is demographic; cancer rates rise with age, and the world population is getting older. Cancer survival rates are up, and treatments are improving both the quality and quantity of life.
Myth 7: Lifestyle doesn’t matter
There is an element of luck involved in whether you get cancer or not. Cancers are errors, and randomness is built into every cell division. This is why some smokers with terrible lifestyles may never get cancer, while someone who lives an exemplary lifestyle may still get cancer.
This doesn’t mean that lifestyle doesn’t matter. Some types of cancers are influenced by environmental factors more than others. Different types of cancers have different primary causes, meaning that some are more “preventable” than others.7 While it’s true that you could still get cancer even if you lived perfectly, this is also true of most other illnesses as well. Today, the public is much more educated about reducing factors that increase cancer risk, and this is a great thing.8
Myth 8: Deodorants, power lines, cellphones cause cancer
These are all well studied and continue to be studied. We cannot definitively say that there can’t be any correlation (like many things), but the current evidence suggests that they are all safe.
- Cellphones and cancer risk
- Power lines and electromagnetic fields
- Deodorants/antiperspirants and breast cancer
Myth 9: Cancer is contagious
Cancer is not contagious, but unfortunately, fear is. Cancers are cells, not bacteria or viruses that can spread. Proximity, sharing meals, or intimate contact will not spread cancer from one person to another. Listen to facts, not fear.9
Myth 10: Skin cancer isn’t serious
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, and most skin cancers have an excellent cure rate if discovered at an early stage. Unfortunately, some patients think that it’s, therefore, not a big deal.
There are many types of skin cancers at many different stages. Although all skin cancers need to be taken seriously, some skin cancers are far more dangerous than others. In all cases, however, early diagnosis and treatment are critically important. One feature of skin cancers is that, unlike other cancers, the tumor is visible, making early diagnosis more probable, especially if the patient is educated about what to look for. Look for the 5 signs of skin cancer.
4To some extent, the idea of immunotherapy and vaccines for cancer rely on this hypothetical.
9There are some theoretical ways in which cancer can be transmitted. One is via organ transplantation, and the other is from mother to baby during pregnancy. These are both extremely rare, however.