World cancer day

Today is World Cancer Day, an international day marked on February 4 aimed at raising awareness of cancer and encouraging effective cancer treatment, detection, and prevention. Its an important day observed by the United Nations with the purpose of reducing illness, death, and avoidable suffering caused by cancer. World Cancer Day plays an important role in not only raising awareness, but also targeting misinformation and reducing stigma. Let’s get started by busting some common cancer myths I have heard from patients through the years.

Myth #1: Cancer is always fatal

Its what everyone thinks, but no one says out loud. Its our biggest fear – that cancer is a death sentence. While this may have been true many many years ago, cancer is no longer the death sentence it was once feared to be. It is estimated that about half the people diagnosed with cancer are disease-free in 5 years. And, this ‘5-year survival rate’ can be increased by early detection and screening. Cancer is not always fatal. In fact, according to stats from the World Health Organization, malignancies (aka cancers) are responsible for 16% death worldwide, and the number one cause of death worldwide is not cancer, but heart disease. 

Myth #2: Cancer treatment does more harm than good

There are MANY fears surrounding treatment for cancer. Weakness, weight loss, hair loss, etc. are common side effects of cancer treatment that can be downright shocking for people to see in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some people believe that cancer treatments are very harmful to the body and can sometimes cause more damage than the cancer itself. This can sometimes lead to people refusing potentially life-saving treatments because of the belief that treatments are “useless in curing cancer” and only end up “causing pain” before the cancer results in death anyways. But we know that cancer is not always fatal, and cancer treatments can be especially helpful in the effective management of the disease, especially at early stages. This can be best understood with the example of colon cancer. Treatment for colon cancer is extremely effective at early stages and much lesser effective at later stages. The success rate of treatment for localized colon cancer is about 90%, and for late stage (spread to other parts) is about 15%. It always best to speak with your doctor about 5-year survival rates than assume the worst or avoid treatment that could potentially save a life. Also, there are predators preying on people’s fears about chemotherapy and radiation, and waiting to sell “natural” treatments, or “healing” sessions, or “gems” with the capacity to “cure”. Be smart, speak with your doctor, or set up a genetic counseling appointment.

Myth #3: Cancer is contagious

Cancer is definitely not contagious because it is not caused by a virus or a bacteria or any other germs that can spread. While cancer certainly can “spread” within the body, its because the cells are unable to stop growing because they’re no longer receiving signals to stop growing (this is the definition of cancer), and not because they’re spreading like an infection. You can definitely give your friend of family member with cancer a hug or a kiss and hold their hand to comfort them. Social distancing – for cancer – not necessary.

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Myth #4: Cancer is very painful

If this were true, nearly everyone would get diagnosed at an early stage because of this “pain”. The truth is that it is actually extremely rare for cancer to be painful. This explains why so many patients are surprised at their diagnosis because they actually “feel fine”. This underscores the need for regular and timely screening so that we’re not counting on “signs” of cancer as the only indicators of when to be concerned. Cancer can happen to anyone, at any time, and screening is the most effective way to find out. Most of the pain that’s linked with cancer is typically related to the discomfort caused by the side-effects of radiation, chemotherapy or dramatized movies. Real life, as you can imagine, is different.

Myth #5: Sugar makes cancer worse

This myth apparently comes from a study that showed that cancer cells consumed a larger amount of glucose (aka sugar). The fact is, ALL cells – cancerous or non-cancerous – need glucose to divide. It makes sense that because cancer cells grow much faster than normal cells, they will consume more glucose. Consuming sugar will not “feed” cancer, and restricting sugar will not “starve” the cancer. If you or a loved one is dealing with a diagnosis of cancer, it is best to speak with a nutritionist to ensure a balanced, nutritious and healthy meal. 

Myth #6: Cancer is a “modern” disease

Patients often express their belief that cancer is a new disease thanks to a modern lifestyle. There may be some truth to lifestyle choices such as an inactive life, smoking, alcohol consumption, processed foods contributing as risk factors for cancers. Having said that, cancer is not a new illness and has even been recorded by ancient Egyptian and Greek physicians. It is more likely that we’re hearing more about cancer these days as compared to before. And this is a good thing because it means we have more information about cancer now than we did before, and there is lesser stigma surrounding a cancer diagnosis as compared to before. It also means that we’re living longer as human beings, and given that age is the single most significant risk factor for cancer, it makes sense that we’re seeing more cases of cancer now that our longevity is increasing as a species. Timely and regular screening can be immensely helpful for early diagnosis and effective treatment. 

Myth #7: Superfoods prevent cancer

Its always good to have healthy and nutritious meals. There is growing buzz surrounding “superfoods” like blueberries, beetroot, broccoli, garlic and green tea, and we’ve all read blogs about their cancer-preventing powers. These foods are certainly good for health and may have positive effects in the fight against cancer thanks to the antioxidants they contain that may help remove toxic elements in the body. However, while it remains good to eat healthy, it would be naive to look at any particular food as the sole protector against cancer. We’re all different, and cancer reacts differently in every person. There is, unfortunately, no single food or food group that can provide enough protection against cancer. Early diagnosis through screening is the way to go.

Myth #8: No family history of cancer equals safety from cancer

This couldnt be farther from the truth. While it certainly is true that some cancers run in families, as a genetics expert, I can tell you that the vast majority of cancers are sporadic. That number, is 85%. Thats right. Only about 15% cancers a familial. Most cancers begin as a random event that causes a cell to divide uncontrollably and/or skip the checks that are put into place by the body to ensure that such rogue cells are destroyed. Family history is one of many important risk factors for cancer. Other risk factors include diet, smoking, alcohol, an inactive lifestyle, certain illnesses or infections, etc. If you are concerned about your risks for cancers and what you can do about it, speak with a genetic counselor who will analyze your medical history, family history and other risk factors to make an assessment of your risk and help you come up with a plan to manage your risk.

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What are your beliefs about cancer, cancer prevention, and cancer treatment? More importantly, what are your plans for cancer screening? Let us know, or set up a genetic counseling appointment to get answers about your risk for cancer and how you can use the power of knowledge to your advantage in the prevention, screening, early diagnosis, and effective management of cancer or cancer risks. Have a great day!

About the Author

Pooja Ramchandran is a pioneer in the field of genetic counseling in India and VP Genetic Counseling at Mapmygenome. She has been practicing clinical genetic counseling in India since graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 2008. She is a much sought-after expert in a niche profession and, being the first genetic counselor in the country with a formal degree in genetic counseling, she is committed to establishing the genetic counseling profession in India.

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