Seven Cancer Lies You Should Not Believe
Health hoaxes have been around forever, but they seem much more prevalent now that we can get information instantly through email and social media. Thousands of false messages are sent daily by well-meaning people that want to help friends and family live a healthful life. But remember, not everything you read on the internet is true. Johns Hopkins University and other experts dispel some of the most common cancer hoaxes being spread today.
A 2005 American Cancer Society survey found that many Americans believe cancer myths. For example, half of American adults mistakenly believe that surgery can spread cancer and more than one if four believes that a cure for cancer already exists but is being held back by a profit-driven industry.
"These results indicate that public and patient education interventions are most urgently needed in cancer centers, medical practices, and other community organizations that serve large numbers of patients,” write the authors in the study that appeared in the journal CANCER.
Johns Hopkins in particular has been cited as the source of many of these hoaxes. The originator probably thought that crediting an esteemed University and medical program would give the message more credence. Again, this is a common practice. For example, many years ago a typed diet called the “Mayo Clinic” diet circulated among Americans although it was never written by or approved by a Mayo Clinic expert. (Today, there is actually an approved Mayo Clinic diet very different from the one written so many years ago.)
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health warns internet users that if they see information labeled as “Cancer Update from John Hopkins” (note the misspelling of the name), that the tip that follows is likely bogus.
Hoax #1: Everyone Has Cancer Cells
Cancer is a genetic disease resulting from a variety of mutations and alterations in our cells. These can either be inherited from our parents or acquired over time due to environmental exposures and behaviors such as smoking and poor diet. Among the trillions of cells in the human body, inevitably some will be abnormal or atypical – but that does not mean they are cancerous, says Luis Diaz, a clinician with the Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics.
Unfortunately, there is no single or standard test for cancer. Although some screening tests are recommended for certain cancers, such as mammography for breast cancer or colonoscopy for colon cancer, for many cancers, there is no test performed until the tumor is large enough to cause symptoms. At that point, a doctor may recommend an x-ray, a biopsy, or other procedure which can detect cancer cells – hopefully at a point early enough in the disease so that it is most likely to be cured.
While evasive cancer cells are a challenge and the focus of ongoing research, it does not mean, as the email contends, that all patients, even those treated successfully for cancer, have cancers-in-waiting—undetectable but still there. People are treated and completely cured of cancer every day.
Hoax #2: A Strong Immune System Destroys Cancer
When it comes to cancer and the immune system, it is not a matter of a “strong” or “weak” immune system, but rather an issue of recognition. Elizabeth Jaffee, co-director of cancer immunology explains.
"The immune system simply does not recognize cancer. In its complexity, the cancer cell has learned to disguise itself to the immune system as a normal, healthy cell. Cells infected with viruses or bacteria send out danger signals setting the immune system in action. But cancer cells do not."
That being said, there is a field known as Cancer Immunotherapy that is working to harness the power of the immune system to ultimately fight cancer. For example, CD8+ Killer T Cells are “ruthless killers of the immune system which can kill thousands of harmful cells, including cancer cells,” per an infographic by the Cancer Research Institute. Medical therapies which utilize this power may ultimately be developed as cures for cancer and other diseases.
Hoax #3: Nutrition Deficiencies Cause Cancer; Supplements Will Help
As previously stated, a poor diet can be a contributor to the development of certain types of cancer; however, no single food or food component has the ability to protect the body against cancer on its own. Research suggests that it is the overall diet – one rich in foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans and low in fats, sugars, and processed foods – that offers the strongest cancer protection.
Most true health experts also dispel the myth that taking supplements is cancer-protective. While a daily multi-vitamin to ensure recommended needs are met for many of the essential nutrients the body needs, taking mega-doses of any vitamin, mineral, herb or other ingredient is not advised. In fact, some studies have linked large doses of supplements may actually contribute to cancer instead of fighting it.
Hoax #4: Chemotherapy, Radiation Therapy and Surgery for Cancer Harms Normal Cells, Causing Cancer to Spread
Chemotherapy and radiation therapy kills cancer cells with remarkable selectivity, says Kimmel Cancer Center Director William Nelson. There are some temporary and reversible side effects common to cancer therapies, including hair loss and low blood counts. Limiting and managing these side effects is an integral part of treatment.
Surgery is the first line of treatment for many types of cancer. It does not cause cancer to spread. Cancers spread to other tissues and organs as a tumor progresses and cancer cells break away from the original tumor and travel through the bloodstream to other body sites.
Hoax #5: Cancers Feed on Certain Foods
There are certain foods that may increase the risk of a person developing cancer. Note – May Increase Risk. This does not indicate that the foods will always ultimately cause cancer, however, for a cancer-prevention diet plan, it is wise to limit them in your everyday meals and snacks.
However, foods do not “feed” cancer cells. You may have heard, for example, that sugar feeds cancer cells by spiking insulin levels. Chronic high blood sugar levels may contribute to the risk of certain types of cancers, but eating a treat now and again will not cause cancer to grow. In fact, the link between circulating insulin levels, diabetes and cancer is not well established and at this point is just an observation.
Remember that moderation is key, and a balanced diet, a healthy weight, daily physical activity and avoiding alcohol and tobacco may prevent as many as 1/3 of all cancers, says Elizabeth Platz, cancer prevention and control expert.
Hoax #6: Cancer is a Disease of Mind, Body and Spirit
There is evidence that survival after a cancer diagnosis is related to mood and spirit. A positive mood may help patients better cope with their disease and may make them more likely to be compliant with treatments. Optimistic patients are also more likely to make good health choices. Depression, on the other hand may hinder cancer survival.
However, stress, anger, or negative emotions are not going to cause cancer. And they will not cause the cancer you have to grow exponentially. Every patient is going to feel stress, anxiety and other emotions during their care. The key is to get help for overall well-being. Johns Hopkins, for example, offers many services for patients and their families, including pain care, chaplain services, and art and music therapy programs.
Hoax #7: Oxygen Kills Cancer Cells
There are some preclinical trials examining the benefits of a certain type of oxygen therapy known as hyperbaric oxygen. A study by The Long Island Brain Tumor Center suggests that hyperbaric oxygen may improve survival rate of glioblastoma brain cancer. During this procedure, a patient is placed in an oxygen chamber that delivers 100% O2 which is thought to improve oxygen delivery to the cells. Because glioblastoma tumors appear to prefer a low-oxygen metabolic state, increasing oxygen consumption may improve the effectiveness of therapy.
But don’t go seeking an oxygen bar or a hyperbaric oxygen clinic near you. The American Cancer Society warns that putting oxygen-releasing chemicals into a person’s body could potentially be dangerous, especially if not performed under strict medical guidelines.
In addition, deep breathing techniques are great stress-busters and can help improve mood (see above), but the practice is not going to cure or prevent cancer.
Other Health and Cancer Hoaxes
There are so many that it would be virtually impossible to encompass all the phony health hoaxes out there today. The best way to stay informed is not through emails or FaceBook postings, but to look for credible health information from reliable sites such as Johns Hopkins or the National Cancer Institute. For a list, visit our Emaxhealth article “When you need health answers, find someone you can trust.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Cancer Update from Johns Hopkins Email Hoax
American Institute for Cancer Research
National Cancer Institute
American Cancer Society