Debunking cancer myths

If you believe everything you read, you may think that you’re at risk of getting cancer from drinking coffee, eating sugar or being stressed. But is there any truth behind any of these claims?

“Old wives tales about cancer have been around for centuries, but social media and the Internet has fuelled the spread of misinformation that isn’t backed up by science,” says Professor Sanchia Aranda, CEO, Cancer Council Australia.
 
“Cancer myths feed the misconception that “everything causes cancer” and leads some people to think that it’s inevitable and unavoidable.”
 
So, here we put to bed some commonly believed cancer myths.  

Myth one - Cancer is hereditary

Only some cancers are hereditary - for example, specific changes (mutations) in either of the two BRCA genes increases the risk of ovarian and breast cancer, and some cancer-causing gene abnormalities may be linked to bowel cancer.
 
However, whilst some people do have a higher risk of cancer based on family history, this may be as much about shared risk factors as genetically inherited predisposition. 
 
“The number of cancer cases linked to known genetic causes is actually relatively small,” says Aranda. “However, we know that around 1 in 3 cancer cases are caused by lifestyle factors such as tobacco, diet, obesity and overweight, physical inactivity and alcohol.”

Myth 2 - Cancer is caused by stress

“There’s never been any solid evidence to support the theory that stress causes cancer,” says Aranda. “However, we know that stress can have an indirect effect on cancer risk because stressed people are more likely to do things such as smoke and drink excessively.”

Aranda adds that preventative healthy habits, like eating plenty of fruit and vegetables and getting enough exercise, may also fall by the wayside if you’re stressed. 

“The role of the immune system in treatment continues to be an important research area and many of the most promising treatments for some cancers, such as melanoma, focus on activating the immune system to fight the cancer.”
lady receiving chemo

Myth 3 - Homeopathic remedies can cure cancer

Whilst there’s a lot of misinformation about ‘natural’ cures for cancer online, unfortunately there’s no good scientific evidence to back them up.

“Natural therapies can cause harm or suffering to those who take them instead of conventional medical treatments and some can also interfere with conventional medicines,” says Aranda. 

Despite this, Aranda notes that some complementary therapies, such as relaxation and meditation, can help manage the emotional and physical impact of cancer.

Myth 4 - Sugar is cancer’s enemy

Aranda admits that there’s a half-truth to this myth. 

“Sugar feeds all types of cells and normal cells in the body that are doing their job use blood glucose as their fuel and so do cancer cells,” she says. 

However, Aranda notes that there’s no evidence to suggest that sugar consumption causes cancer to grow or spread faster and eliminating sugar from your diet only results in starving your good cells of energy as well. 

“Sugar plays an indirect role in cancer risk by contributing to overweight and obesity, so a balanced diet is important to reduce this and is an important part of helping your body during cancer treatment.”

Myth 5 - Cancer is a death sentence

These days a cancer diagnosis in most cases is no longer a death sentence. In fact, around 67% of people diagnosed with cancer in Australia are still alive five years later thanks to advances in research, treatment, early detection and support. 
 
“When cancer is detected early, long-term survival can be as high as 95%,” says Aranda. Early detection is the key, as is participating in national screening programs for bowel, cervical and breast cancers.”
 
Despite this, Aranda notes that some cancer types continue to have a poorer prognosis where more research is required. These include lung, brain and pancreatic cancers. 
 
For more information on cancer myths, visit Cancer Council’s iheard page. 
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