Dr Rosie Carey clears up some misconceptions about cancer
Cancer is such an emotive word that it often comes with a whole host of myths attached to it. Until recently, people often felt ashamed to admit that they had cancer. These days people are opening up about cancer and there is a lot more awareness around it, but with that exposure comes a lot of inaccurate information. Let’s try to separate the fact from fiction…
Cancer is not a death sentence There was a time when the diagnosis of cancer was tantamount to a death sentence, but that is no longer the case. The likelihood of dying from cancer has decreased steadily since the early 1990’s. The five-year survival rate for all cancers combined is around 67 percent, which means that about seven out of 10 patients diagnosed with any cancer at any stage will survive for five years or more. The decrease in cancer mortality can be attributed to earlier diagnosis (cancer survival is very dependent on how advanced the cancer is at diagnosis, which is why screening for cancer is so important) and also better treatment. As medical knowledge continues to advance, the chances of surviving cancer will become stronger and stronger.
Cancer is not contagious This should be general knowledge, but it’s not, so let me reiterate: cancer is not contagious. You cannot catch cancer by hugging or kissing or caring for a person with cancer. In fact, you cannot ‘catch’ cancer from another person at all (except in the case of organ transplants where the tissue donor has cancer, but this is very, very rare). Although cancer is not contagious, there are certain viruses, such as Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), that have been linked to cancer and that can be spread from person to person. Only a small percentage of people with HPV will go on to develop cancer and that is most likely the result of the interplay between their individual immune systems and the virus.
Cancer surgery or biopsy of a tumour causes it to spread Yes, this is possible, but because of this, surgeons who biopsy potentially cancerous lesions or who do surgery to remove cancer are very careful about the way in which they operate and follow very specific protocols to ensure that this does not happen. The benefit of having the biopsy or surgery, when performed by a well-trained surgeon, far out-weighs the risk of potential spread as a result of the surgery.
Someone in my family has cancer, so I am likely to get it too Once again, there is a measure of truth in this. There are certain cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer that can have a strong genetic link, but not all cancers are genetic. Only about five-10 percent of cancers are caused by a hereditary genetic mutation. Usually if such a genetic mutation is present in your family, members will be susceptible to the same kinds of cancers. In these types of cancers it is easy to do early screening and manage and potentially malignant changes before they become serious. The remaining 90-95 percent of cancers are spontaneous cancers and the causes are usually multi factorial.
It’s important to note here that just because no one in your family has cancer, it doesn’t mean you aren’t at any risk of cancer.
Substances commonly thought to cause cancer (but that actually don’t) The following substances are commonly reported to cause cancer but so far there is no validated scientific evidence to prove a link between the substance and cancer:
*Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium.
*Deodorants or anti-perspirants
*Hair dyes (although there is some evidence that hairdressers who are regularly exposed to large volumes of hair dye and chemical products may have an increased risk of bladder cancer).
*Power lines: the electromagnetic energy emitted by power lines is a low-frequency form of radiation that does not damage genes.
*The verdict is still out on cellphones although to date there is no hard evidence to prove a link between cellphones and cancer.
Chemotherapy (treatment for cancer) will make you bald or kill you Yes, it can, but not in all cases (and in most cases will save your life).
Lots of the chemotherapy given today is far less harmful and potent than the chemotherapy regimes of the past. Certain forms may make you lose your hair and other types may make you very ill, but different cancers require different chemotherapy and just because someone you know had chemotherapy and suffered terribly, it doesn’t mean that that is necessarily the case for all cancers and all forms of chemotherapy.
Cancer is never a nice diagnosis, but let’s not make it worse by spreading false information. If in doubt, speak to your doctor.