As with any disease, there are many myths and and misconceptions surrounding cancer. Medical science has achieved a great deal in dispelling many of these myths and misconceptions but several still abound. Cancer is a very serious condition that is potentially life-threatening. It is important to for ever person to understand the facts about cancer as it has serious implications. Myths and misconceptions can delay the diagnosis of cancer and even affect the outcome of the treatment.
All tumors are cancerous
The word tumor simply means abnormal growth. It can be simply classified as a malignant tumor or a benign tumor. A malignant tumor, or malignancy, means that it is cancerous. Benign tumors are non-cancerous. Some benign tumors have the potential to become malignant while others do not. There are several reasons for the differences between benign and malignant tumors but the important point to bear in mind is that a benign tumor does not spread (metastasize) in the way that a malignant tumor can. There are also tumors which are precancerous which have not as yet become fully malignant but show the potential to become so in time.
Only cancerous tumors kill
The term ‘non-cancerous’ will often make us breathe a sigh of relief. Benign tumors are given little thought or concern in the same way as malignant tumors. It does not mean that benign tumors cannot cause serious symptoms or even death but it is less likely to do so and largely depends on the location and size of the growth. Malignant tumors (cancerous) tend to invade the organ where it is located thereby destroying healthy cells. Cancer cells can also break off and travel to other organs where it will form new malignancies. Collectively this damages several organ simultaneously and ultimately leads to death if left untreated.
Cancer is linked to immunity
Your immune system plays a vital role in keeping your body cancer-free. In fact it has battled cancer many times in your life but it did so quickly and efficiently and you never knew that a cancer cell existed. When the immune system weakens then the likelihood of cancer developing can increase. People with weak immune systems, like in HIV infection and AIDS, are more likely to develop cancer. The immune system is so ‘intelligent’ and complex that it can identify defective cells which may be cancerous and immediately destroy it before it grows and spreads. Some cancer treatments utilize this efficiency of the immune system. But the inefficiency of the immune system is not always solely to blame for cancer.
Cancer is inherited in the genes
We always assume that every condition that has a genetic component is a result of defective genes being inherited. However, this is not so with cancer. The genes in cancer cells are defective which leads to abnormally-structured cells, that grow aggressively and tend to live longer than regular cells. But you may not have inherited these genes. In fact it is estimated that only 5% to 10% of cancer cases seen in the United States are due to hereditary factors. The rest of the time the genetic defect arises during the course of life. Exposure to radiation, cigarette smoking and certain medication are known to increase the likelihood of these defective genes arising.
Heavy drinking increases cancer risk
We often focus on cigarette smoking being the greatest cancer risk factor. And it is very much so. But there are other lifestyle habits that can also play a role. Heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer especially of the mouth, liver, breast, colon and other types of cancers. The exact reason is not always understood. Tobacco is known to be laden with cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) and it appears that the same applies to alcohol. It is known that heavy drinking weakens the immune system which may play a role in cancer risk. Irrespective of the exact mechanism, what is important to bear in mind is that heavy drinking is a problem and it does not matter what type of alcohol is consumed.
Antiperspirants and sweeteners cause cancer
These products are widely believed to cause cancer but this is unfounded. Every now and then these claims surface in the media only to cause another cancer scare. Antiperspirant is said to be responsible for breast cancer while using sweeteners is allegedly linked to a host of different malignancies. But this is untrue. There is no scientific evidence to support the claims that antiperspirants and sweeteners cause cancer. Some people believe that it is the previous generation sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin that are more dangerous in terms of cancer than newer ones like stevia and sorbitol. However, all sweeteners are relatively safe to use with no scientifically-verified cancer risk.
Exercise reduces cancer risk
Exercise is not only beneficial for mental health, the cardiovascular system and managing body weight but it also has a positive impact in just about every part of the body. The same applies to cancer. Studies have shown that the risk of certain cancers, like breast cancer and colon cancer, is lower in people who exercise regularly despite having other cancer risk factors. But exercise is not a means of definitely preventing cancer or treating it. People who are at high risk of cancer should undergo regular screening. Exercise alone is not the only lifestyle measure that can reduce the risk. Eating healthy, avoiding cigarette smoke and maintaining a healthy body weight are also helpful.
Smoked foods and processed meats are risky
There is a wide body of evidence to suggest that consuming smoked foods and processed meats like luncheon meats can increase the risk of cancer. It is more closely linked to malignancies of the digestive tract like stomach cancer and colon cancer. The risk is significantly greater if a person eats smoked foods and processed meats on a daily basis. It is believed carcinogens like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) from the smoking process adheres to the food. The risk applies to barbequed food as well and is substantially greater for smoked meats. With luncheon meats it is believed that the high concentration of nitrites may be associated with the increased cancer risk.
Older people die if they have cancer
Many cancers occur more often in older people than in younger adults, adolescents or children. Similarly there are some cancers that may arise early in life and is uncommon to develop late in life. The general perception that cancer is more serious in older people is not entirely untrue. The body’s healing ability declines with age and it is a factor when considering the seriousness of the cancer. This has major implications when considering how an older person will deal with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. But it does not mean that the elderly will definitely die when they get cancer. Much has to do with the person’s general health status and pre-existing chronic conditions apart from just their age.
Radiation treatments increase future risk of cancer
Radiation therapy is a very effective treatment option for cancer. It is not always necessary for every case of cancer but when indicated, it should be conducted as prescribed by an oncologist. Radiation may be done before, during or after cancer surgery. It works by destroying the DNA of the cancer cells but it can also damage normal and healthy cells. Although radiation treatment can be an important tool in the fight against cancer, it can also increase the likelihood of cancer arising later on. For this reason the radiation is administered in the smallest possible dose to have a beneficial effect and for as short a time as possible. Having radiation treatment is not a guarantee that it will cause cancer later in life.