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50 Rampant Cancer Myths You Need to Stop Believing

Sometimes it seems like everything can cause cancer. Thankfully, that's not true, and neither are these popular myths about the dreaded disease.

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Myth: Cancer is a “fight” you have to “win”

“Many people think of cancer as a battle that can be won by the most determined and committed patient. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case. Even the patient who follows her oncologist’s instructions perfectly may succumb to her illness. The image of a prizefighter knocking out the enemy simply does not happen for many patients. Sometimes, a more realistic goal is to improve quality of life. Setting small goals for overall health can be important to monitor progress. Celebrating small achievements can be very meaningful.” — Ashley Sumrall, MD, FACP, section chief of neuro-oncology at the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Myth: Cancer just happens, there’s nothing you can do to prevent it

“Up to 50 per cent of all cancers can be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise, diet, and avoidance of toxins. I recommend you exercise frequently, even if it is only for a short while each time, and try to keep a routine of being physically active. It’s also important to establish healthy eating habits by avoiding excess sugar and heavily processed foods and including lots of fruits and vegetables.” — Ted James, MD, MS, FACS, member of the board of directors of the American Cancer Society’s New England Division. To get a jump start on those healthy changes, start increasing your intake of these foods that can reduce your risk for colon cancer.

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Myth: Cancer is one disease

“In reality there are hundreds of types of cancers. Each has a unique molecular signature and variable clinical expression. In my subspecialty of neuro-oncology, we have identified at least 120 subtypes of brain and spinal cord cancer. With an enemy this diverse, our diagnostic and therapeutic approaches must expand.” — Ashley Sumrall, MD. This is what all of those cancer ribbon colours mean.

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Myth: Having a “cancer gene” means you’re doomed to get cancer

“Many people who have a genetic mutation associated with an increased cancer risk think there is nothing they can do to avoid it, but there are so many intricate pathways in our metabolism and in our cells. Some of these pathways can turn genes on and some can turn them off. It’s a field called epigenetics, where environment and external influences can alter gene expression. This gives the patient power to do things, like eating a healthy diet and exercising, that can possibly affect their outcome.” — Dr. Yee.

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Myth: Superfoods can prevent or cure cancer

“People think that there’s a food or a type of food that can solve all your cancer problems and reduce your cancer risk but the evidence just isn’t there. What we see from an evidence perspective is that overall dietary pattern makes a difference. Now there certainly are foods that I think of as ‘super’ that are really healthy and packed with nutrients, like colourful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy protein sources like fish and beans. We should be eating a lot of them—just not with the idea that any one of those is going to prevent cancer.” — Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of active living for The American Cancer Society

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Myth: Cancer is hereditary; you can only get it if it runs in your family

“There are familial patterns of inheritance with many forms of cancer, yet the most common forms of cancer are often unrelated to genetics. More importantly, even if a cancer is genetic, it does not necessarily mean that you will express that cancer. The medical field still does not fully understand why certain patients will get a cancer while other family members with similar genetics and environmental exposures will not. The take-home message: All people should live their lives in the healthiest manner possible to avoid all disease, which should include your physical and mental health.” — David Poulad, MD, a neurosurgeon and partner at IGEA Brain & Spine, specializing in neuro-oncology. The findings from these new health studies could change the way you live your life.

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Myth: Cancer is a death sentence

“Many people think cancer is incurable despite all the money that has been invested in decades of research. But although cancer can be a devastating diagnosis, it is not hopeless. New research in immunotherapy has enabled us to give more patients hope about managing their disease and possible beating it altogether.” — David Poulad, MD. Read the incredible true story of two sisters who were diagnosed with cancer in the same week—and how it only made them stronger.

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Myth: Sugar causes cancer

“Sugar doesn’t cause cancer, nor does it worsen it. Sugar is needed to support the immune system, which helps fight cancer. Sugar (glucose) in moderation is just fine and important in a balanced diet.” — Anton Bilchik, MD, chief of medicine and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. That said, here are 25 other ways sugar poses a serious health risk.

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Myth: It’s your fault you have cancer

“While there are some lifestyle factors that affect cancer risk, we’re not clear on what exactly causes it. Once a cancer develops it’s no longer relevant how you got it. Don’t waste time and energy chiding yourself—shaming yourself or others is completely unhelpful.” — Stephen Marcus, MD, cancer researcher and author of Complications of Cancer

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Myth: Having surgery can cause a cancer to spread or grow

“Cancer spreads through the blood or lymphatic system. Having surgery does not increase its potential to spread and most of the time actually decreases it.” — Carla Fisher, MD, assistant professor of surgery, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania 

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Myth: Drinking coffee or tea can reduce your cancer risk

“There’s been a lot of research about whether green tea and coffee can affect your cancer risk. I would say the jury is still out. We know the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are protective against cancer; what we don’t really know is if those same antioxidants are in tea or coffee. I tell people if you like it then drink it but from a cancer perspective we don’t know enough to say ‘If you drink this it will reduce your cancer risk.'” — Colleen Doyle, MS, RD. Here’s what we do know about the health benefits of green tea.

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Myth: Your doctor doesn’t understand your fears about cancer

“I am a prevention expert who treats cancer patients and at the end of the day, we as experts, are no different from the average Joe. We worry about getting cancer and preventing it; we struggle with weight control, getting enough sleep, work-life balance, and prioritizing exercise. You can tell us anything.” — Peter Shields, MD, deputy director and cancer prevention researcher at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and lung oncologist with the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. Try to avoid making these common doctor appointment mistakes, too.

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Myth: If you have cancer you should just rest and take it easy

“An intervention like exercise has almost universally positive side effects versus other treatments that can have deleterious side effects. Exercise is a type of therapy that benefits multiple systems in the body, and may permanently alter the environment within the tumour. ” — Brad Behnke, PhD, an associate professor of exercise physiology and lead author of a study examining this link

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Myth: Skin cancer is only skin deep

“The truth is that people who have had a skin cancer are at higher risk (53% higher) for developing internal cancers, such as lung cancer, stomach cancer, etc. compared to someone who has never had a skin cancer.” — Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD. Here are 15 skin cancer myths you need to stop believing now.

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Myth: Chemotherapy is debilitating

“Reality: some are and most are not. It depends on the chemotherapy recipe for the specific cancer. Therefore most chemotherapy is given as an outpatient and patients go home after treatment.”  Chandler H Park, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine. 

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Myth: Darker skin patients can’t get skin cancer and don’t have to wear sunscreen

“I’ve diagnosed countless patients in the past with skin cancers in all skin types.” — Dhaval G. Bhanusali, MD, FAAD. For maximum protection from those cancer-causing UVB rays, be sure to follow these sunscreen tips year-round.

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Myth: Clinical trials to treat cancer are for patients who have run out of options

“In fact, a clinical trial is always an option to possibly improve a patient’s journey with her/his disease. By participating, patients may have access to new research options before they are widely available. Clinical trials enable each patient to play an active role in his or her healthcare.” — Victoria Manax Rutson, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. Learn how to spot the signs of pancreatic cancer you might be ignoring.

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Myth: “Young” men don’t get prostate cancer

“While it is true that prostate cancer risk and incidence increase as a man ages, men shouldn’t be deceived into believing that it is an “old man’s disease.” In fact, more than 70,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year are diagnosed earlier than 65 years old.” — S. Adam Ramin, MD, Urologist and Medical Director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. Not sure what to look for? These are the signs of cancer that men are likely to ignore.

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Myth: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer

“Lumps and any other changes in the breasts should be reported to a doctor, but most turn out to be benign.” — Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center. Here are five ways to prevent breast cancer, according to science.

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Myth: Sunscreen causes skin cancer

“I don’t know how this big lie got started, but the fact is that studies have shown that daily sunscreen use reduces the risk of skin cancer.” — Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD. That said, here are six healthy reasons you should switch to mineral sunscreen now.

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Myth: Chemotherapy is the same for all cancers

“Many patients say, ‘I know someone that received chemo.’ That’s like saying, ‘I know someone that received antibiotics.’ There are so many different antibiotics and chemotherapy. Each medication is different.” — Chandler H Park, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine

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Myth: People don’t die from cancer complications anymore

“Movies and TV shows write in the lead characters as surviving against all odds. But the fact is so much of surviving cancer depends on following your doctor’s guidelines, and, please, stop smoking. You won’t believe the number of people refusing to stop smoking thinking it won’t hurt them since they’re seeking treatment. Yes, it will.” — Darius Russin, MD. Serious about butting out for good? Here are 23 of the best ways to stop smoking.

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Myth: No progress has been made in fighting cancer

“This simply isn’t true. There’s still a long way to go. There are some cancers where progress has been much slower—such as lung, brain, pancreatic and esophageal cancers. And when you lose someone you love to cancer, it can feel as though no progress has been made at all. Significant progress has been made, and many, including our team at the Medical College of Wisconsin, are performing cutting-edge research to continue the fight. We’re working hard to make sure nobody loses his or her life prematurely to the disease. — Sailaja Kamaraju, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Medicine for the Medical College of Wisconsin. Here’s the real reason pancreatic cancer is so hard to treat.

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Myth: There is nothing you can do to lower your risk of developing breast cancer

“The fact is that 90 per cent of breast cancers are largely due to lifestyle and environmental factors. To keep your risk as low as it can be, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and limit the amount of alcohol you drink.” — Marisa Weiss, Chief Medical Officer, President and Founder of Interested in more ways to prevent breast cancer? Here are three ways to reduce your breast cancer risk.

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Myth: Only people with fair skin are at risk for skin cancer

“False. Anyone, regardless of skin colour, can develop skin cancer. Everyone needs to practice good sun protection habits starting at a young age.” — Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD

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Myth: Mammograms catch all breast cancer

“Up to 10 per cent of breast cancer is missed on a mammogram. Thus self-breast exam and physician breast exam is very important.” — Chandler H Park, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine

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Myth: Prostate cancer treatment always causes impotence

“I have found that this is one of the reasons that men initially shy away from prostate cancer treatment once they have been diagnosed. But it simply isn’t true. Today’s state-of-the-art technology, especially when it comes to robotics, can offer tissue and nerve-sparing benefits that don’t leave men permanently impotent after surgery. What’s more, this technology can be completely curative, meaning that it removes all of the cancer. The most important factor in the success of this technology is the surgeon who is using it. He or she must be highly knowledgeable about the technology and extremely skilled and experienced in using it. This gives men the best chances of successful treatment without long-lasting side effects.” — S. Adam Ramin, MD, Urologist and Medical Director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. Get to know the telltale signs of prostate cancer here.

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Myth: Cannabis cures cancer

“While there is some evidence that cannabis can kill some types of cancer cells in a petri dish or in mice, there are no studies supporting this idea in humans. There is a huge gap between lab science and human treatment. The problem with this myth is that patients often want to use cannabis for treatment instead of unpleasant, but clearly proven, conventional treatment. That’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute, even though you have one.” Jordan Tishler, MD. Here are five conditions that really can be treated with medical marijuana.

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Myth: Mastectomies are more effective than lumpectomies

“The chances of cancer coming back on the chest are lower with a mastectomy, however in terms of survival, an appropriately formed lumpectomy is an equivalent option.” — Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center. Believe it or not, working in these particular jobs can increase your cancer risk.

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Myth: Chemotherapy means you will lose your hair

“Just as there is not one type of cancer, there is also not one type of chemotherapy. It is true, there are certain therapies that do cause hair loss, but there are many that do not. The chemotherapy that is utilized depends on the type of cancer as well as the stage of the cancer. Movies focus on the ones with the more dramatic effects most often because they are exactly that, more dramatic. But many chemotherapies are very well tolerated and have much more subtle side effects.” — Allen Kamrava, MD, MBA, FACS, FASCRS.

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Myth: I’m less likely to develop skin cancer if I use a tanning bed versus lying in the sun

“Make no mistake about, it, studies have proven that tanning bed use increases the risk of skin cancer dramatically.” — Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD. Find out how to spot the signs of lung cancer you might be ignoring.

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Myth: Childhood immunizations (and even the newborn vitamin K shot) can cause cancer

“Absolutely no credible evidence for this classic myth, and yet the anti-immunization forces continue to push this myth on trusting young parents.” — James Fahner, Division Chief For Hematology And Oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Find out how medical experts in Europe are fighting the war on vaccines.

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