23 Myths About Cancer You've Always Believed
You need to stop believing these common misconceptions about cancer.
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. And yet, the general public is still relatively in the dark when it comes to information about the disease. What's worse is that so many misconceptions about the malady are spread far and wide—both online and off—making it difficult for people to distinguish real medical advice from baseless fallacies. We've gathered scientific evidence and expert medical advice to debunk the most common cancer myths once and for all.
Myth: Eating sugar will worsen your cancer.
Fact: Perhaps because cancer cells consume more glucose than other cells do, people have come to believe the fallacy that eating sugar will worsen the disease. However, the National Cancer Institute disputes this claim, noting that "no studies have shown that eating sugar will make your cancer worse or that, if you stop eating sugar, your cancer will shrink or disappear."
Myth: The more dairy you consume, the more likely you are to get breast cancer.
Fact: No, you don't need to give up parmesan cheese and yogurt parfaits to keep yourself safe from breast cancer. A pivotal 2002 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology concluded that there is "no significant association between intakes of … total dairy fluids or total dairy solids and breast cancer risk."
Myth: Consuming artificial sweeteners causes cancer.
Fact: People became concerned in the 1970s and '80s when studies came out showing that artificial sweeteners, like saccharin and aspartame, could cause cancer in mice—but further testing proved that these substances didn't have the same affect in humans. Today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that all of these sugar substitutes (barring cyclamate) are safe for consumption.
Myth: Using a cell phone can cause cancer.
Fact: This common cancer myth stems from the fact that cell phones give off electromagnetic radiation. However, there is a difference between high frequency radiation (like that from X-rays) and low frequency radiation (what cell phones emit).
While high frequency radiation can increase your risk of cancer, there is no conclusive evidence that low frequency radiation has such an effect on the body. As one 2015 study from the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks noted, "The epidemiological studies on mobile phone radio frequency electromagnetic field exposure do not show an increased risk of brain tumors [and] they do not indicate an increased risk for other cancers."
Myth: Cancer is 100 percent hereditary.
Fact: Though research is still being done on the causes of cancer, the National Cancer Institute puts the number of cancers that are hereditary at somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. The remaining 90 to 95 percent of known cancers are the result of everything from exposure to harmful environmental agents like tobacco to natural gene mutations due to aging.
Myth: Only women can get breast cancer.
Fact: Though much less common, it is possible for a man to develop breast cancer. According to the non-profit Breastcancer.org, the average man has a 1 in 883 chance of getting breast cancer in his lifetime.
Myth: If a mammogram comes back clean, then there is no breast cancer.
Fact: "Mammograms can miss concerning findings," says Janie Grumley, MD, a breast surgical oncologist at Providence Saint John's Center in California. "If there is a breast symptom, a clear screening mammogram is not enough." She says that patients with a genetic predisposition to breast cancer especially should look into getting an MRI for a more accurate screening.
Myth: Dyeing your hair increases your risk of getting cancer.
Fact: Studies on the cancer-inducing affects of hair dye have had conflicting results. Because of this, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that the use of hair dye is "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans"—though they did warn that "occupational exposures as a hairdresser or barber are probably carcinogenic to humans."
Myth: How much you weigh has nothing to do with your cancer risk.
Fact: Unfortunately, your weight and your cancer risk are directly correlated. According to a 2015 study published in The Lancet Oncology, an estimated 3.6 percent of all new cancer cases in adults were weight-related in 2012.
There are many possible explanations as to why obesity puts people at a greater risk for cancer. One is that people who are overweight often have chronic low-level inflammation, which can damage DNA over time and develop into the disease.
Myth: People with darker skin can't get skin cancer.
Fact: Having darker skin doesn't protect you from the perils of the sun. In fact, though skin cancer is more often seen in people with lighter skin, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that the disease is more fatal in people with darker skin tones.
What's more, some skin cancers—like acral melanoma, the type that killed Bob Marley at the relatively young age of 36—are more often seen in people of color, so it's important to always apply sunscreen before going outside.
Myth: Using antiperspirant causes breast cancer.
Fact: Does deodorant cause breast cancer? The short answer is no. This myth originated online as a rumor that substances in antiperspirants could infiltrate the lymph nodes in the armpit and mutate cells to cause cancer. However, the American Cancer Society rebukes this claim, noting that there is "very little scientific evidence" to back up this supposed science.
And when comparing 813 women with the disease and 793 women without it, a notable 2002 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found that there was no link between breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use, deodorant use, or armpit shaving.
Myth: Breast implants increase your risk of breast cancer.
Fact: A significant 2001 meta-analysis published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery concluded that "breast implants do not pose any additional risk for breast cancer," so there is no reason to be afraid of getting breast implants if that is what you so desire. However, it's important to note that there does seem to be a very small link between implants and a rare type of treatable cancer called anaplastic large-cell lymphoma. Just something to be aware of!
Myth: People being treated for cancer must remain in the hospital.
Fact: Though the treatment for cancer does involve several trips to the hospital, you by no means have to remain there until you go into remission. In fact, many people with cancer in the early stages are able to continue living their lives, going to the hospital only for treatments and check-ups.
Myth: Only cigarette smokers can get lung cancer.
Fact: While it is true that people who smoke are up to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer, those who don't are also at risk thanks to other things like secondhand smoke, radon in the air, and exposure to asbestos.
Myth: If you have HPV, then you are definitely going to get cervical cancer.
Fact: Some strains of human papillomavirus, or HPV, develop into cervical cancer over time, but not always. According to the American Sexual Health Association, an estimated 14 million new cases of HPV occur each year in the United States—but earlier this year, the American Society of Clinical Oncology estimated that a comparatively far fewer 13,170 women would be diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Myth: Having a bad attitude will make your cancer worse.
Fact: Often when a person with cancer is not seeing any improvement, their instinct is to blame themselves and their negative attitude as the root of the problem. However, the American Cancer Society notes that there does not seem to be a link between personality traits and cancer survival rates. "Based on what we know now about how cancer starts and grows, there's no reason to believe that emotions can cause cancer or help it grow," they note on their website.
Myth: Having surgery causes cancer to spread.
Fact: "There is no evidence to support the idea that … surgery causes cancer to spread," says the Cancer Council NSW. Because the disease grows and multiplies entirely through the blood, there is just no way that having surgery would make it worse.
Myth: Herbal supplements can cure cancer.
Fact: Herbal supplements can help put a person with cancer on the path to remission, but only when used in combination with conventional treatments, according to a 2013 study in the the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. However, since some supplements like St. John's Wort interact poorly with traditional medicines, it's important to let your doctor know which herbal remedies you want to try before starting a new experimental regimen.
Myth: Air exposure will cause cancer to spread.
Fact: Because many people come out of biopsies feeling worse than they did going into it, one common myth in the cancer community is that exposing cancer to the air will worsen it. However, as authors Jamie Schwachter and Josette Snyder noted in their book The Complete Cancer Organizer, "there is no factual evidence that suggests that a biopsy of a lesion can result in a cancer spreading, nor is there any evidence to suggest that … exposing a tumor to air can cause the cancer to spread to other parts of the body."
Myth: Chemotherapy always makes you feel sick.
Fact: Chemotherapy treatment has come a long way since it was first used in the 1940s and '50s. "We have a lot of good things that we do to reduce or even eliminate a lot of these side effects," Issam Alawin, MD, a medical oncologist at the Tulsa branch of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America, explained on the organization's website.
Myth: Cancer is contagious.
Fact: As the American Cancer Society notes, cancer itself is not contagious, and you cannot contract the disease from someone else who has it. However, there are some contagious viruses that can cause cancer to watch out for. HPV and hepatitis B and C are contagious, and can cause cancer down the line.
Myth: Fluoride can cause cancer.
Fact: Despite what conspiracy theorists believe about the water supply, fluoride—which can be found in everything from toothpaste to supplements—does not cause cancer. In Feb. 1991, the Department of Health and Human Services reviewed more than 50 human population studies, and declared that the naturally occurring substance "does not pose a detectable cancer risk to humans."
Myth: Getting cancer is a death sentence.
Fact: Thanks to technological advances and medical discoveries, a person's chances of living with cancer are much better than what they used to be. According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for all types of cancers combined is around 67 percent, and that statistic is as high as 90 percent for specific cancers like breast, prostate, and thyroid.