Debunking cancer myths

THERE are many myths about cancer. We hear and read about them so often that we no longer know truth from myth. From the super foods that can cure cancer to the secret cures that the medical fraternity is not sharing with us – are these truths or myths?

Dr Dalilah Kamaruddin, head/medical officer at the Cancer and Health Screening Clinic of the National Cancer Society Malaysia, clears the air by explaining and debunking the myths below:

Cancer is a modern disease

Cancer risk factors include smoking, alcohol, lifestyle and not enough exercise. Lifestyle and environment are part of our modern living.

However, Dr Dalilah says, that doesn’t mean cancer did not exist in the past. It could have existed but was not investigated.

“Having said that, it’s not just the intensity of the carcinogens that matters, but also how long you are exposed to those carcinogens. For example, if I smoke a cigarette today, that does not mean I will have cancer tomorrow. But if I were to smoke a packet of cigarettes a day, for the next 10 or 20 years, my risk of getting cancer would be increased.

“That it is a modern disease could be partly true because of the carcinogens, but we don’t know about the past; it could have existed then,” says Dr Dalilah.

Cancer is a death sentence

There is still a stigma attached to cancer. The layman thinks that they are going to die soon as soon as you tell them they have cancer.

“Of course, it depends on how early you detect the cancer. If you detect it as early as Stage 1 to 2, the survival rate would be more than 90%. But if we were to detect it later or you have your treatment later, then the chance of surviving is lower, maybe 25%.

“So, I would say that it is a death sentence if you do not take action,” she says.

If someone in your family has cancer, you will get it too

Only 20% of cancer patients have family members who have cancer. About 80% of them do not have a family history of cancer. So, this is not exactly true.

If you have a mastectomy, you won’t get breast cancer

If you only do a mastectomy on one breast, then there is the risk of getting breast cancer in the other breast. If you do a mastectomy on both breasts, you still have maybe a 15% risk or less than that in the thoracic region (the chest area) and upper abdominal area. The cancer cells can still exist there. The risk of you having cancer is much less, but it can still happen.

Underwire bras put you at risk of breast cancer

When you wear an underwire bra, you tend to compress the fatty tissues jus below the breasts. When that happens, you could cause some breast oedema (buildup of fluid that causes swelling) in this area. Does it 100% cause cancer? No, because we have seen many patients who don’t even wear a bra who also get breast cancer. So, this is a myth.

Sweet foods feed a cancer

Cells need glucose or insulin for them to grow. If you do a scan to see where the cancer cells have spread, you will see that they are in the cells that have a lot of insulin and glucose.

“Maybe, this is where the myth comes from.

“There is no study saying 100% that glucose causes cancer cells to affix on it. Cancer cells are like a parasite; they will affix on anything that makes them grow, not only on glucose. If there is a host that can give them a lot of feeders (activity that makes them grow), then they will grow more in that area,” explains Dr Dalilah.

Being positive can lead to recovery or cure

Cells become cancerous when they become mutant. This means that the cells are exposed to carcinogens, and you don’t have a strong immune system nor the ability to combat the antigens.

When you are stressed or have been thinking about something for too long, you tend to cause yourself stress. When that happens, your cells shrink and you are more exposed to the negative ions in your surroundings that cause your cells to be more prone to get diseases, says Dr Dalilah.

“When you are positive, actively exercising, living a healthy lifestyle and always on the move, your cells will grow healthier. When you are stressed, you are depressed, and when you are depressed, you do not want to do anything, so you sit down and don’t lead a healthy life,” she adds.

Superfoods and herbal products prevent cancer

“I would say there is some truth in that. For cells to be healthy, they need to fit into a healthy environment. I won’t say that certain foods will reduce your risk 100%, but I would say having a variety of foods will increase your chances of being healthy.

“I have to say this because there are patients who will hold on to one type of food. If they hear that pucuk or mangosteen will help you become healthier and you won’t get cancer, they will just take that one thing.

“I have seen so many cases of patients, when they are diagnosed with cancer, who abandon all other therapies and just concentrate on juices. In the end, they are so dehydrated and get weaker and that makes them succumb faster to death,” explains Dr Dalilah.

According to her, having a variety of foods and moderation in the types of foods and supplements will make you healthy and this will reduce the risk of getting cancer.

Although antioxidants and phytochemicals are good for the body, it is best to have well-balanced meals rather than focusing on one food item.

Hair dyes, birth control pills and handphones cause cancer

Studies are still being done on these. Dr Dalilah reveals that the studies thus far are inconclusive.

“So far, it’s very individualised and so is the cancer treatment. It all depends on your immunity and health in general.

“Hormones do play a role but it depends on what type of hormones you take excessively. We know that certain hormones can decrease your risk of having certain cancers. For example, if you take more oestrogen hormones, it will reduce your risk of having ovarian cancer or endometrial cancer,” explains Dr Dalilah.

Breast implants increase your risk of getting cancer

Patients are not encouraged to get breast implants. This is because when they go for a mammogram to see if there are any cancer cells in the breasts or if there is any abnormality in the breasts, nothing can be detected. The scan would only detect the silicone, so the implants would hinder all the cells that the scan is supposed to look for.

In addition, for those who have had silicone injections, sometimes globules of silicone appear in the scan which would camouflage any abnormal cells.

There is also the risk of the silicone implants leaking and rupturing which would cause complications.

The cure for cancer has been found but pharmaceutical companies are withholding it

Dr Dalilah reveals that there is no truth in this.

“If there is any advancements in cancer treatments, we would be informed by the Ministry of Health. So far, I have not received any information that any one treatment cures any cancer 100%,” she says.

Cancer is contagious

Except for cervical cancer (which is caused by a virus), this is a myth.

“I have had patients whose family didn’t want to touch any food in the house because they were scared that the breast cancer was contagious. The headmistress of a school told the parents of a brain cancer student not to let her return to school until she was fully cured because she was afraid it would be contagious.

“There are a few cases we have heard of where people think it’s contagious,” says Dr Dalilah.

Blood tumour markers can detect cancer

According to Dr Dalilah, there is no one single test for cancer. Even to confirm that you have breast cancer, you need to go for a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy.

“Sometimes, people come in wanting to test for blood tumour markers to see if they have cancer, but the problem is those tumour markers have a lot of false positives.

“I have had patients whose blood tumour markers are high but they don’t actually have cancer.

“The tumour markers are helpful for diagnostic purposes. Usually we take a baseline of tumour markers just to see what the level was before treatment. If the levels are the same or increased, then it could tell us something, but it does not mean 100% the patient has cancer. Most oncologists do not advise testing for tumour markers,” says Dr Dalilah.

The only exception is the PSA (prostate specific antigen) tumour marker. To detect prostate cancer, the two reliable tests are the ultrasound of the prostate and the PSA tumour marker. However, it would still need to correlate with clinical findings.

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