A few cancer myths

It would be virtually impossible to catalogue all the myths that abound on the causes and treatments for the diseases we collectively call cancer. In the tradition of making top ten lists, Oliver Childs writing at Cancer Research UK takes a stab at debunking a few myths.

Here’s there list and some highlights from each section.

Myth 1: Cancer is a man-made, modern disease

Cancer has existed as long as humans have. It was described thousands of years ago by Egyptian and Greek physicians, and researchers have discovered tell-tale signs of cancer in a 3,000-year-old skeleton.

While it’s certainly true that global lifestyle-related diseases like cancer are on the rise, the biggest risk factor for cancer is age.

The simple fact is that more people are living long enough to develop cancer because of our success in tackling infectious diseases and other historical causes of death such as malnutrition. It’s perfectly normal for DNA damage in our cells to build up as we age, and such damage can lead to cancer developing.

Myth 2: Superfoods prevent cancer

Despite thousands of websites claiming otherwise, there’s no such thing as a ‘superfood’. It’s a marketing term used to sell products and has no scientific basis.

The steady accumulation of evidence over several decades points to a simple, but not very newsworthy fact that the best way to reduce your risk of cancer is by a series of long-term healthy behaviours such as not smoking, keeping active, keeping a healthy body weight and cutting back on alcohol.

Myth 3: ‘Acidic’ diets cause cancer

One such idea is that overly ‘acidic’ diets cause your blood to become ‘too acidic’, which can increase your risk of cancer. The proposed answer: increase your intake of healthier ‘alkaline’ foods like green vegetables and fruits (including, paradoxically, lemons).

This is biological nonsense. True, cancer cells can’t live in an overly alkaline environment, but neither can any of the other cells in your body.

But there’s no good evidence to prove that diet can manipulate whole body pH, or that it has an impact on cancer.

Myth 4: Cancer has a sweet tooth

Another idea we see a lot is that sugar apparently ‘feeds cancer cells’, suggesting that it should be completely banished from a patient’s diet.

While it’s very sensible to limit sugary foods as part of an overall healthy diet and to avoid putting on weight, that’s a far cry from saying that sugary foods specifically feed cancer cells.

Both the ‘acidic diet’ and ‘sugar feeds cancer’ myths distort sensible dietary advice. And when it comes to offering diet tips, research shows that the same boring healthy eating advice still holds true. Fruit, vegetables, fibre, white meat and fish are good. Too much fat, salt, sugar, red or processed meat and alcohol are less so.

Myth 5: Cancer is a fungus – and sodium bicarbonate is the cure

This ‘theory’ comes from the not-very-observant observation that “cancer is always white”.

One obvious problem with this idea – apart from the fact that cancer cells are clearly not fungal in origin – is that cancer isn’t always white. Some tumours are. But some aren’t. Ask any pathologist or cancer surgeon.

One estimate suggests that a dose of around 12 grams of baking soda per day (based on a 65 kg adult) would only be able to counteract the acid produced by a tumour roughly one cubic millimetre in size. But doses of more than about 30 grams per day are likely to cause severe health problems – you do the maths.

Myth 6: There’s a miracle cancer cure…

From cannabis to coffee enemas, the internet is awash with videos and personal anecdotes about ‘natural’ ‘miracle’ cures for cancer.

often people who make bold claims for ‘miracle’ cures only pick their best cases, without presenting the full picture.

This highlights the importance of publishing data from peer-reviewed, scientifically rigorous lab research and clinical trials. Firstly, because conducting proper clinical studies enables researchers to prove that a prospective cancer treatment is safe and effective. And secondly, because publishing these data allows doctors around the world to judge for themselves and use it for the benefit of their patients.

This is the standard to which all cancer treatments should be held.

Myth 7: … and Big Pharma are suppressing it

It simply doesn’t make sense that pharmaceutical companies would want to suppress a potential cure. Finding a highly effective therapy would guarantee huge worldwide sales.

And the argument that treatments can’t be patented doesn’t hold up. Pharma companies are not stupid, and they are quick to jump on promising avenues for effective therapies. There are always ways to repackage and patent molecules, which would give them a return on the investment required to develop and test them in clinical trials (a cost that can run into many millions) if the treatment turns out to work.

To suggest that we are – collectively and individually – hiding ‘the cure’ is not only absurd, it’s offensive to the global community of dedicated scientists, to the staff and supporters of cancer research organisations such as Cancer Research UK and, most importantly, to cancer patients and their families.

Myth 8: Cancer treatment kills more than it cures

Let’s be clear, cancer treatment – whether chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery – is no walk in the park. The side effects can be tough. After all, treatments that are designed to kill cancer cells will inevitably affect healthy cells too.

The claims on the internet that chemotherapy is “only 3 per cent effective” are highly misleading and outdated, and are explored in more depth in these two posts from the Science Based Medicine blog.

We also wrote this post in response to concerns that chemotherapy might “encourage cancer”.

It important to point out that in an increasing number of cases, the drugs do work. For example, more than 96 per cent of all men are now cured of testicular cancer, compared to fewer than 70 per cent in the 1970s thanks in part to a drug we helped to develop called cisplatin. And three-quarters of children with cancer are now cured, compared with around a quarter in the late 1960s – most of them are alive today directly thanks to chemotherapy.

Myth 9: We’ve made no progress in fighting cancer

This simply isn’t true. Thanks to advances in research, long-term (10+ years) survival from cancer has doubled in the UK over the past 40 years, and death rates have fallen by 10 per cent over the past decade alone.

By definition, these figures relate to people treated at least 10 years ago. It’s likely that the patients being diagnosed and treated today have an even better chance of survival.

Myth 10: Sharks don’t get cancer

Yes they do.

This excellent article goes into why the myth about the cancer-free shark has been so persistent.

Read the whole article. Better yet, browse through their entire  article excellent website on the facts around the causes and treatments of these disease.

If it sounds too good to be true……

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