Debunking 9 common cancer myths

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be a scary time, made even more confusing with incorrect information found online.

This content is presented by HonorHealth.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be a scary and uncertain time. It can be made even more confusing with incorrect information found online.

Brendan Curley, DO, a medical oncologist at HonorHealth, has received questions from his patients on many myths. He shares his answers to the most common ones:

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Myth #1: Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, cause cancer.

Dr. Curley: Artificial sweeteners have not been proven to cause cancer in humans. There initially were concerns about laboratory animals having bladder cancer following exposure to a combination of artificial sweeteners. Unfortunately, studies in mice or rats frequently are performed with high doses that humans would never consume. Since then, multiple studies have not definitively proven an association of cancer with artificial sweeteners in humans. Currently, the FDA states sweeteners are generally safe for consumption.

Myth #2: Cancer is contagious.

Dr. Curley: No, cancer is not contagious. Cancer cells are not able to spread from person to person. However, there are some cancers that are caused by certain types of germs like viruses or bacteria. For example:

• Human papilloma virus (HPV) is linked to head and neck, cervical and anal cancers.

An FDA-approved HPV vaccine for boys and girls protects against HPV-related diseases. Pediatricians recommend that the vaccine be given to both boys and girls at the age of 11.

• Helicobacter pylori is a bacterium that can increase the risk of gastric cancer.

• A person who has received an organ transplant from a donor who had cancer could be at an increased risk for a transplant-related cancer, but that’s extremely rare.

Myth #3: Cell phones cause cancer.

Dr. Curley: There is currently no definitive scientific evidence that cell phone use causes cancer. Some people may worry that cell phones emit radio waves or radiofrequency energy that can damage nearby tissue, causing brain cancer. According to recent research, patients with brain cancer do not report more cell phone use than controls or people without brain cancer. However, current research does have limitations, mostly because cell phones are relatively new and we’re using them more now. So it’s difficult to give a definitive answer right now. However, evidence currently does not support cell pones causing cancer.

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Myth #4: A biopsy can cause cancer cells to travel to other parts of the body.

Dr. Curley: No, with very rare exceptions. In one in millions of cases, a biopsy spread cancer to other parts of the body.

Patients get biopsies to ensure that we’re treating them with the appropriate drugs. Patients who get biopsies live longer than those who do not.

Biopsies provide definitive diagnosis to make sure we are accurately diagnosing cancer cell type. We can also find specific mutations, but only from the actual tissue acquired via biopsy. Based on these results, we’re able to get targeted therapies or even immunotherapies to better fight cancer.

Myth #5: Most breast cancers are genetic.

Dr. Curley: Most breast cancers are not genetic. Around 90 percent of breast cancer is sporadic, or just an unfortunate consequence. One in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime, and cancer will affect one in three women in the U.S. in her lifetime.

Risk factors for breast cancer do include the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which are the inherited familial cancer cases. However, these genes are rare, accounting for only approximately 10 percent of the breast cancers we see. Patients with these genes will often be recommended for genetic counseling and testing, earlier screening or preventive surgery to reduce their risk of cancer.

Myth #6: Cancer thrives on sugar.

Dr. Curley: This is a very common question, and I was actually asked about it twice today. No, cancer does not thrive on sugar. There’s no evidence that eating sugar will make cancer grow, speed up its growth, or make it spread more quickly.

For some patients, the misunderstanding is related to PET/CT scans used for staging cancer. PET uses a radioactive tracer that’s a sugar analog as a means to evaluate cancer cells that use more energy than normal tissue. These cancer cells absorb this radiotracer at a higher rate and appear brighter on the scan. This has raised the question of whether cancer cells will thrive on sugar.

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All cells, including cancer cells, require sugar for energy. But more sugar will not speed a cancer cell’s growth, just as decreasing sugar will not slow down its growth. That does not mean one should go out and eat candy all day. But you don’t have to cut out all sugar. For anyone who wants to prevent cancer, exercise and a healthy plant-based diet is optimal.

Myth #7: Cancer treatment – such as chemotherapy and radiation – is worse than the disease.

Dr. Curley: We’re able to manage side effects much better than 10 to 15 years ago. We’re able to reduce nausea and vomiting induced by chemotherapy. In certain breast cancer cases, we’re able to provide cold caps that prevent women from losing their hair. Many patients are able to continue to work, exercise and do what makes them happy during cancer treatment.

Myth #9: Bras cause breast cancer.

Dr. Curley: Bras do not cause cancer. This, along with antiperspirant causing cancer, are common myths with no scientific backing. A study looked at the link between underwire bras and breast cancer, and it did not show any conclusive evidence. Being overweight does increase the risk of breast cancer, and maintaining a healthy body weight with exercise and a healthy diet can reduce the risk of cancer.

In conclusion:

It’s important to discuss all of your fears and questions with your oncologist. Never be afraid to ask questions and bring up your concerns to your treating physician! An open and honest dialogue can turn a very uncertain time into one that can lead to effective and successful treatment.

For more information on cancer diagnosis and treatment, visit HonorHealth.