Debunking cancer myths

PHOTO: Debunking cancer myths

As a society, we have somewhat moved past the flawed belief that cancer happens to people who "have been bad" or "is being punished for the sinful thing he did".

We now know that cancer can happen to anyone.

However, some of the common myths of cancer remain, particularly on the types of food or lifestyle habits that could "cause cancer" or "prevent cancer".

This week, we explore the realities of some common myths about breast cancer and cervical cancer that are sourced from consultant clinical oncologist and radiotherapist Dr Manivannan A. B., consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Liew Fah Onn, the United States National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc, and the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, US.

Read on for some common myths and misconceptions about breast and cervical cancer.

Breast cancer

Myth: Only women with a family history of breast cancer are at risk.

Reality: While having a family history of breast cancer may put you at a higher risk of developing breast cancer, most women (over 85 per cent) diagnosed with breast cancer do not have a family history of it.

Your risk may increase as you age, or if your periods start early (below 12 years old) or stops late (more than 55 years old). It is also higher if you have a personal history of cancerous changes in your breast.

That said, even when breast cancer affects mostly women, it can also affect a very small number of men (less than 2 per cent according to Malaysian statistics).

Myth: Wearing an underwire bra increases your risk of getting breast cancer.

Reality: Wearing a tight underwire bra may sometimes restrict your ability to breathe properly, but there is no sufficient evidence to support the claim that it will increase your risk of developing cancer. The same goes for claims about deodorants and antiperspirants, and drinking from a plastic water bottle left in a hot car.

Even if you do not practise any of the above, or are not categorised in the high risk group, you should not take your breast health for granted.

Myth: Breast cancer always comes in the form of a lump in the breast.

Reality: The early signs of breast cancer can differ between individuals. Although a lump or lumps in the breast are more common, other signs such as swelling, skin dimpling (a dimple in the breast), an inverted nipple and nipple discharge can also occur.

In the earliest stages, breast cancer may also develop without any signs or symptoms. This is when a mammogram is useful in detecting any early changes.

Myth: Herbal remedies and dietary supplements can help treat breast cancer.

Reality: So far, there are no herbal remedies or dietary supplements that have been scientifically proven to treat breast cancer, says Dr Manivannan. It is important for women to consult a medical doctor for the diagnosis or treatment of breast cancer. Those who are interested in starting alternative therapies when they are on treatment should consult their doctors before doing so.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer

Myth: Cervical cancer, like many other cancers, cannot be prevented.

Reality: Cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers because some of its risk factors and causes have already been identified. Studies have suggested that the most common cause of cervical cancer is the repeated and persistent infection of certain strains of the HPV virus (mostly HPV-16 and HPV-18). Therefore, HPV vaccination against these two strains can help reduce your chances of getting infected.

That said, it is still possible to develop cervical cancer due to other strains of HPV that can cause malignant changes in the cervix. This is why even those who are vaccinated should still continue to go for regular Pap smears so that early changes in cells in the cervix can be detected, says Dr Liew.

The earliest signs of cervical cancer is unusual bleeding, especially in between periods or after sexual intercourse. So, you should consult your doctor if you have any of these symptoms.

Myth: I'm too young to have cervical cancer. After all, cervical cancer does not run in my family and only promiscuous women get cervical cancer.

Reality: The incidence of cervical cancer increases with age, but even women in their 20's can develop cervical cancer.

Unlike breast cancer, cervical cancer is not hereditary. Therefore, if none of your family members have the disease, it does not mean you are at a lower risk of developing it.

While sexual promiscuity is a major risk factor for cervical cancer, especially when it starts at a young age, women who are in monogamous relationships can still develop cervical cancer.

Myth: If I am diagnosed with cervical cancer, I must have my uterus removed. Even if I don't have to, I won't be able to have children after treatment.

Reality: Again, the treatment of cervical cancer depends on the stage of the cancer and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. If the cancer is detected in the early stages within the cervix, cancerous growths or areas can be removed by minor surgery.

However, if it is detected in later stages, or if the cancer has spread to surrounding structures, radiotherapy and a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) may be needed. Women who have undergone both these procedures will not be able to conceive after treatment.