Popular Cancer Myths & Misconceptions
Cancer is a death sentence
Contrary to the popular myth that "cancer is something you die from," cancer should be viewed as something "you can learn to live with." Yes, cancer can cause death, but new breakthroughs in early detection of cancer have made it much more treatable. It is estimated that 40% of cancer patients reach or exceed the five year survivor mark. It is also estimated that about a third of all cancers are curable and another third preventable. Chances of cure depend on the type of cancer, stage of cancer and the general health of the individual. Improved education and access to preventative care is bringing improved cancer outcomes to patients. Screening helps detect cancer at early stages when it is most likely to be cured.
If I receive radiotherapy or chemotherapy it will kill me
Effective and well administered treatment is known to improve the quality of life of cancer patients or even cure the disease. Precautions and due care is taken in cancer treatment delivery. This is accompanied by careful monitoring of patients throughout the treatments course. Early detection and prompt treatment is central to the success of radiotherapy and or chemotherapy. In Zimbabwe, the majority of cancer patients (about 80%) in Zimbabwe present for treatment when it is too late (3rd and 4th stage) for treatment to be effective, resulting in increased premature deaths from cancer. Diagnosis of cancer at earlier stages of disease can enhance chances of successful treatment outcomes and greatly increases chances of a successful cure.
Surgery or needle biopsy can disturb cancer cells, causing them to spread to other parts of the body
There is no evidence supporting that surgery cannot cause cancer to spread. To the contrary, surgically removing cancer is often the first and most important treatment. Some people feel worse during recovery than they did before surgery. For most types of cancer, there is no conclusive evidence that needle biopsy (a procedure used to diagnose many types of cancer) causes cancer cells to spread.
Some types of cancer can be contagious / infectious
No type of cancer is contagious (can spread from one person to the other). However, there are two known contagious viruses, HPV and Hepatitis C that can cause cancer. HPV is a known risk factor for cervical cancer and Hepatitis C causes liver cancer. Both viruses can be transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, although Hepatitis C is more often transmitted through blood to blood contact such as sharing needles and transfusions. HIV and AIDS also increase the risk of developing cancer by weakening the immune system.
Certain cancers only develop in people who are HIV positive
The connection between HIV/AIDS and certain cancers is not completely understood, but the link likely depends on a weakened immune system. HIV is transmitted from person to person most commonly in blood and bodily secretions (such as semen). Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a disease of the immune system caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). People living with HIV/AIDS have a high risk of developing certain cancers, such as Kaposi sarcoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and cervical cancer.
Studies have shown that people infected with HIV are 1000 times more likely to be diagnosed with Kaposi sarcoma, at least 70 times more likely to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and at least 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical cancer compared to people who are HIV negative. However, not everyone presenting with any of these cancers is HIV positive, as they can also develop in people who are HIV negative.
Cancer causes hair loss
Cancer does not cause hair loss. Hair loss is a side effect of cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Not everyone who has chemotherapy or radiation loses their hair either. The good news is the hair will grow again about six months after treatment.
Cancer is one disease
Cancer is one word that represents not one, but more than 200 different types of diseases. It is a group of diseases with common feature of abnormal growth of body cells. Cells are the basic unit of life, the building blocks of body organs and tissue. Under normal circumstances cells divide and multiply in a controlled orderly manner for growth, to repair worn out and injured tissues as the body needs them to keep healthy. When cells become old or damaged, they die and are replaced with new cells. However, sometimes this orderly process goes wrong.
When this happens, cells do not die when they should and they continue to multiply without control forming a mass or tumour. These growths are considered either benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). Malignant growth can spread to other body organs (metastasise) and destroy or disturb function (invasive). Cancer is always named after the part of the body where it starts, even if it spreads to other body parts later.
Cancer is a disease of the elderly and developed countries
Cancer does not discriminate. It is known to affect all ages and socio-economic groups. However, the greatest increases in cancer are occurring in developing countries. Cervical cancer is a striking example between developed and developing countries. “Over 85% of the 275,000 women who die every year from cervical cancer are from developing countries. If left unchecked, by 2030 cervical cancer will kill as many as 430,000 women per year,” according to Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). Some cancers are also known to be common in certain age groups and races.
If your close relative(s) had cancer, you will have it too
While it is true that some cancers are genetic, this does not mean that one will definitely develop cancer because of their heredity. Cancers such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and colorectal cancer are a few of the cancers that can be passed down genetically. If a parent has these cancers, the cancer gene may be passed to their child. If a child inherits the gene, it only raises the likelihood of developing cancer, not guaranteeing a cancer sentence. Regular screening for the respective cancer(s) is very important in these groups of people.
Cancer is my fate
Conservatively a third of the most common cancers can be prevented through lifestyle. However, lifestyle will play an exclusive role in one’s overall health, energy and vitality. Lifestyle can be the difference between developing cancer at age 40 or 70. The difference is an improved quality of life. Healthy lifestyles can substantially reduce cancers that are caused by alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. Simply by improving one’s diet, physical activity level and maintaining a healthy body weight could prevent a third of the most common cancers.
Infections also form another group of important cancer risk factors. Many cancers in the African population are related to infectious agents and in Zimbabwe, the HIV and AIDS pandemic is augmenting the rate of HIV-related cancers, with 60% of new cancers being associated with HIV and AIDS. Regional statistics also show that, seventy percent of cervical cancer cases in Sub-Saharan Africa are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is also sexually transmissible. Other infections of interest are hepatitis B and C and schistosomiasis (bilharzia).