Whether you are in a developing country in Asia or in a developed country like Britain, some cancer myths are deeply entrenched into the fabric of society.
Such myths do not help with either the treatment or prevention of this often-terminal chronic disease, and may often contribute to delayed diagnosis or advancement of the disease.
Here are 10 common cancer myths, and the scientific truth behind them:
MYTH 1: SUGAR FEEDS CANCER
All sugars are carbohydrates, also called carbs, i.e. molecules made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Carbs, be they from rice or cakes, will be broken down in your digestive system to release glucose and other simple sugars, which will then be absorbed into the bloodstream to provide you energy.
The truth is, all cells (cancerous or not) will use glucose for energy.
However, cancer cells typically grow much faster compared to healthy cells, and tend to have a high demand for such fuel. They also use glucose and produce energy in a different way from healthy cells.
But this doesn’t mean that sugar from sugary foods will specifically feed cancer cells, according to cancer research and awareness charity Cancer Research UK.
Your body doesn’t pick and choose which cells get what fuel, and it converts all the carbs you eat into glucose, fructose and other simple sugars to be taken up by all tissues for energy.
Nevertheless, it is sensible to limit sugary foods as part of an overall healthy diet to avoid obesity.
MYTH 2: THERE ARE SUPERFOODS TO PREVENT CANCER
Super green tea, B17 extracts and any specific foods that have been marketed aggressively as superfoods to prevent cancer are a myth.
Some foods are certainly healthier and should be part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Eating a range of different-coloured vegetables is good too, and it really doesn’t matter what specific vegetables you choose.
Your body is complex, and so is cancer! Thus, it is a gross oversimplification to say that any one food on its own could have a major influence over your chance of developing cancer.
Cancer is caused by a combination of both modifiable and non-modifiable factors.
MYTH 3: “ACIDIC” DIETS CAUSE CANCER
It’s a myth that “acidic” diets lead to “acidic” blood, which increases your risk of cancer.
Many cancer survivors are told to increase their intake of alkaline foods like green vegetables and fruits (including, paradoxically, lemons).
Now, if cancer cells can’t live in an overly alkaline environment, then neither can any of the other cells in your body.
Blood is usually slightly alkaline and is regulated by the kidneys, so any extra acid or alkali is simply excreted out in urine.
Acidosis may occur, but it is a physiological condition where your kidneys and lungs cannot regulate your body’s pH and is usually due to serious illness or poisoning. It is not caused by overly acidic diets.
Cancer Research UK says that there is no good evidence to suggest that diet can manipulate whole body pH or that it has an impact on cancer.
MYTH 4: CANCER IS A MAN-MADE, MODERN DISEASE
Cancer is on the rise and age is the biggest risk factor.
As we age, it’s normal for DNA damage in our cells to build up, and these damages then lead to the development of cancer.
The incidence of cancer is also rising due to greater awareness and better detection.
Although lifestyle, diet, air pollution and smoking can collectively impact on our risk of cancer, it is not a modern, man-made disease.
There are also other various natural causes of cancer, e.g, one in six cancers worldwide are caused by viruses.
MYTH 5: CANCER IS JUST FUNGUS
And sodium bicarbonate is the cure.
Candida is a genus of yeast, which is a type of fungus.
It is normal to have some yeast living within us, but when the balance between the microorganisms in our body is disrupted, it may result in a yeast infection, or candidiasis.
Healthy people can also get candidiasis, which is a common infection.
Our immune system usually keeps Candida in check, but such infections can get more serious in those with compromised immune systems, e.g. the HIV-positive.
When people equate Candida as fungus and cancer as fungus, the logical conclusion becomes to treat tumours with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).
However, Cancer Research UK cautions that sodium bicarbonate isn’t even the treatment used to treat proven fungal infections, let alone cancer.
Crucially, they warn that there’s good evidence that high doses of sodium bicarbonate can lead to serious, and even, fatal consequences.
MYTH 6: THERE’S A MIRACLE CANCER CURE
From B17 to tapioca to coffee enemas etc, there are numerous so-called cancer treatments that are often touted as miracle cures.
Often, we only hear about the success stories, but not from patients who have tried them and have not survived.
Cancer patients understandably want to find a cure by any means possible, but Cancer Research UK advises to be wary of anything labelled a “miracle cure”, especially if people are trying to sell it to you.
MYTH 7: BIG PHARMA IS SUPPRESSING A CURE
Some people believe that there is a conspiracy where governments, the pharmaceutical industry, and even charities, are colluding to hide the cure for cancer because they make so much money out of existing treatments.
It simply does not make sense that pharmaceutical companies would suppress a potential cure, as such a therapy would guarantee huge global sales for them.
MYTH 8: CANCER TREATMENT KILLS MORE THAN IT CURES
Cancer treatment – e.g. chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery – may have tough side effects.
As these treatments are designed to kill cells, they will inevitably affect healthy cells too, although cancer cells are the most susceptible to them.
Chemotherapy does work. For example, Cancer Research UK reported that more than 96% of all men are now cured of testicular cancer, versus less than 70% in the 1970s, because of the chemotherapy medication cisplatin.
And three-quarters of children with cancer are now cured, versus only a quarter in the late 1960s.
Many are alive today directly thanks to chemotherapy.
MYTH 9: WE’VE MADE NO PROGRESS IN FIGHTING CANCER
Cancer Research UK reports that survival from cancer has doubled in Britain over the past 40 years, and death rates have fallen by 10% over the past decade alone. In fact, half of all patients now survive at least 10 years.
This is progress.
MYTH 10: CANCER IS CONTAGIOUS
Cancer is not a contagious and cannot spread from person to person.
The one situation where cancer can spread from one person to another is in the case of organ or tissue transplantation.
A person who receives an organ or tissue from a donor who had cancer in the past may be at increased risk of developing a transplant-related cancer in the future. However, that risk is reportedly low – about two cases of cancer per 10,000 organ transplants.
In addition, the use of organs or tissue from donors who have a history of cancer is usually avoided.
Cancers may also be caused by certain viruses (e.g. human papillomavirus or HPV in cervical cancer) and bacteria (e.g. Helicobacter pylori in stomach cancer).
However, while a virus or bacterium can spread from person to person, the cancers they sometimes cause cannot spread from person to person.
Dr Loh Siew Yim is an associate professor with University Malaya’s Department of Rehabilitation and the founder of the KeepAble Cancer Community organisation. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The information provided is for educational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.