Cancer myths tend to gain a life of their own, but knowing the truth can help you better protect yourself or make wiser treatment choices.
“Cancer” was once a word only said in whispers, and even today, many people cite a cancer diagnosis as one of their greatest fears. Perhaps that’s why so many myths and rumors about cancer still exist. But these false beliefs — some fueled by bad information, others as outgrowths of fear — do nothing but increase anxiety.
Whatever their source, these cancer myths can be very damaging as they spread. They can distract you from protecting yourself against known cancer causes, instead drawing your focus to things that have no impact on your chances of contracting cancer. And they can hurt cancer patients’ chances of beating the disease by creating a sense of hopelessness or by enticing them to pursue unproven remedies.
Here are eight common cancer myths and the truth about each, according to leading authorities, including the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
1. The chance you’ll die of cancer increases every year. More people are being diagnosed with cancer these days, but medical advances have improved survival rates and overall quality of life for cancer patients. The five-year survival rate for all cancers combined has shown steady improvement over the past three decades, and more than 60 percent of people diagnosed with cancer are still alive five years after diagnosis. There’s been a steady decrease in the number of people dying from cancer, even as the overall population of the United States has increased.
2. You’re more likely to develop lung cancer from urban air pollution than from smoking cigarettes. Breathing the air of a polluted city is much less likely to cause lung cancer than smoking cigarettes or being frequently exposed to secondhand smoke. The numbers speak for themselves: Nearly 9 in 10 lung cancers, or about 87 percent, result either from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.
3. Using certain antiperspirants, shampoos, deodorants, or other personal toiletries can increase your breast cancer risk. This rumor holds that harmful substances in these products are absorbed through the skin or enter the body through nicks or cuts. Research has found no evidence to support this claim, including at least one epidemiological study that directly compared women with and without breast cancer and found no link between their health and their toiletries.
4. Cell phones cause brain cancer. As of yet, there is no credible evidence that exposure to electromagnetic fields emitted from cell phones or other personal electronics can cause cancer. One recent study found that cell phone users had no elevated risk for a number of different cancers, even if they’d been using the phones for a decade or more. More research is ongoing, but for now the risk seems minimal.
5. Fluoridated water increases your cancer risk. Rumors about fluoride in drinking water causing cancer have swirled for decades, but no evidence has ever been found to support this myth. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently produced a survey of existing research that found no credible evidence of an increased cancer risk in people who drink fluoridated water — and half the U.S. population does.
6. There’s a cure for cancer out there, and the medical establishment is keeping it hidden. People who research and treat cancer develop the disease at the same rate as all other Americans, which presumably would not happen were there a cancer cure at their disposal. Also, the idea itself of a single miracle cure is a myth, as dozens of different types of cancers each respond differently to treatment.
7. Cancer is always a painful disease, so if you feel fine, you don’t have cancer. Many types of cancer cause little to no pain, especially in the early stages. That’s why it is important to pay attention to other signs and symptoms for the early detection of cancer and why regular screenings are recommended for cancers of the cervix, breast, and colon.
8. If your mom or dad had cancer, it’s likely you’ll have it one day. While the chances vary depending on the type of cancer, a family history of cancer doesn’t mean that you will automatically develop the disease yourself. Some forms of cancer like breast, ovarian, and colorectal cancer pass to the next generation in an inherited form only 5 to 10 percent of the time.
Arming yourself with knowledge — the truth rather than myths — is the best way to fight every type of cancer.