Cancer myths dispelled
This year’s theme for World Cancer Day on Monday February 4 focuses on repudiating the myths that surround cancer.
Myth: Cancer is a disease of white people
Cancer occurs among people of all races, creeds, ages, genders, rich and poor – it knows no boundaries. Although most cancers occur proportionally more in white people, research data indicates that cancer is a disease of all people.
Myth: Skin cancer is not a deadly disease and only affects fair-skinned people
Thousands of people lose their lives from skin cancer every year, the majority because of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Cases are most prevalent among those with lighter skin.
Although darker-skinned people have a higher concentration of melanin, which helps protect against ultraviolet radiation, a study by researchers at the New York School of Medicine in 2010 found that ultraviolet A radiation damaged the DNA of these cells. This causes mutations that may lead to malignant melanoma. A higher prevalence rate for all skin cancers is also found among people with albinism.
Myth: There is nothing I can do to prevent cancer
At least 30-40 percent of cancers are preventable. Potential risks can be reduced by avoiding cancer-causing agents and by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Many cancers can be prevented if you avoid tobacco, eat a healthy diet, exercise, protect yourself from excessive sun exposure, limit or avoid alcohol and go for the recommended screenings.
At least 20 percent of cancers are caused by infections (mostly viral) in Third World countries like South Africa, and Cansa advocates vaccinations for human papilloma virus, for cervical cancer and the hepatitis B vaccine for primary liver cancer.
Myth: Cancer is always fatal
Cancer is a serious disease that may cause death. However, breakthroughs in prevention, early detection and more specific treatment regimens are promoting more effective control measures.
It is estimated that more than 40 percent of adult cancer patients and 60 percent of childhood cancer patients are successfully treated for cancer in South Africa.
Myth: Electromagnetic radiation exposure does not increase the risk for cancer
Electromagnetic radiation forms part of non-ionising radiation, a term given to radiation emitted from devices that produce, transmit or use electric power.
Some sources of this radiation are power lines, cellphone masts or towers (transmitters), as well as televisions, microwave ovens and wireless communication devices like cellphones.
Over the past 15 years, there have been several studies evaluating children and adults’ residential exposures to electric and magnetic radiation in relation to risks of some cancers, like glioma, leukaemias, lymphomas and breast cancer.
It is wise to take measures to reduce exposure to cellphone radiation by making use of hands-free devices and texting.
Although many findings have been inconclusive, IARC classified radio frequency electro-magnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) following a long term study in 14 countries. This cohort study showed evidence of an increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma linked to the “heavy use” of cell phones with a reported average of 30 minutes use per day over a 10 year period.
Myth: Fluoridated water causes cancer
South Africans drink water that contains fluoride. A connection between fluoride in water and cancer has been studied for years. Although studies in the late 1990s showed an increased number of cases of osteosarcoma (bone tumours) in male rats given fluoridated water for two years, a recent report by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention summarised research findings and concluded that studies to date had produced “no credible evidence” of an association between fluoridated drinking water and an increased risk for cancer in humans.
Myth: Smoking one or two cigarettes a day won’t cause cancer
Even smoking a single cigarette can cause the cilia (tiny hair-like structures that move mucus out of the lungs) to become paralysed for up to eight hours, preventing the removal of impurities from the airways that could cause lung disease.
Myth: Chewing tobacco, snuff or smoking hubbly bubbly are safe alternatives to tobacco.
There is nothing healthy about any tobacco product. All are addictive and can cause cancers of the throat, mouth, and lungs and are linked to other cancers, such as of the cervix and breast.
Myth: I take antioxidant supplements, I don’t need to eat my recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
Antioxidants – such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids and selenium – are known to fight cancer-causing free radicals in the body. Free radicals come from environmental factors such as pollution and the sun and also from by-products of chemical reactions in the body.
Antioxidants are found mainly in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables as well as whole grains, nuts and seeds. Synthetic (artificial) antioxidants may even increase the risk of cancer.
Myth: Lemons kill cancer cells
No scientific evidence could be found that lemons or molecules from lemons are able to cure cancer. There are, however, some indications of molecules found in lemons (like limonin) acting as a cancer preventive agent. There is also some evidence that lemon molecules can stop the growth of certain tumours in humans.
Myth: Grilled and well-done meat is not linked to cancer
The eating of grilled or pan-fried meats can increase a person’s risk of cancer. When meat is grilled, harmful chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are created. These chemicals are found in higher quantities when meat is well-done or burnt. Experts recommend limiting the amount of grilled meat and avoiding open flame grilling, as well as the eating of burnt parts.
Myth: At 30, I am too young to get breast cancer.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among South African women. According to the National Cancer Registry (2004), breast cancer is the number one cancer among all females, except among black females, where it is the second most common cancer.
Men can get breast cancer too and if a man finds a lump or tissue growth, he must get it checked by a doctor.
Myth: Only older men get testicular cancer
Testicular cancer occurs in younger men, particularly between the ages of 15 and 39. Cansa advises all men to do a monthly testicular self-examination to detect any abnormality early. Men should seek help immediately if they notice any change in or abnormality of their testes.
Recent research has shown a definite link between the smoking of dagga (marijuana) and testicular cancer.
Cansa supports the views expressed by the Livestrong Foundation and North Carolina University that the use of anabolic steroids causes the shrinkage of the testes. All males should avoid the use of anabolic steroids because it increases the risk of testicular, prostate and other cancers.
Myth: Canola oil is poisonous and causes blindness, deterioration of the nervous system, mad cow disease and was used to make deadly mustard gas during wartime
Canadian plant breeders used traditional techniques to create the canola plant from the rape plant in the 1970s.
These special plants were christened “canola” from “can” in “Canada” and “ola” for “oil low in acid”. Cansa promotes canola oil because its well-balanced fat composition, especially the low omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2 to 1, can help to lower the risk of cancer.
There is no scientific evidence that canola oil or rape seed oil interferes with the central nervous system or vision or causes blindness.
Mad cow disease is caused by a virus-like organism called “scrapie” which is found in sheep. Mustard gas is produced synthetically and is not derived from rape seed or canola oil.
Myth: There is no link between cancer and the eating of meat and animal fat, therefore patients can eat meat freely
In 2011, a review of several studies by prominent scientists, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organisation concluded that cancer patients should eat very little or no red meat, because all these meats are high in iron content, which is highly absorbable and is a requirement for cancer cell growth.
Certain amino acids in proteins further stimulate the growth of cancers. The strongest evidence is with methionine, of which pork meat is the main source. Red meat is considered a risk factor for colorectal, prostate, breast, uterus, kidney and other cancers.
A study in China showed strong correlation between cancer and the amount of protein consumed. Lean meat and poultry are implicated in certain cancers.
The meat industry may also use preservatives like nitrites and nitrates to preserve meat and increase the shelf life of processed meat. Biltong may now also be preserved with the use of nitrates or nitrites (not only salt) and therefore should not be given to babies and infants.
Myth: A positive attitude is ALL you need to beat cancer
There’s no scientific proof that a positive attitude gives you an advantage to improve your chance of being cured of cancer. A positive attitude will, however, improve the quality of life during cancer treatment and beyond.
It is a fact that religion and spiritual values are important for people to cope with cancer.
Myth: Alternative therapy can replace the use of conventional treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy
There is no scientific evidence that any alternative cancer treatment is more efficacious and safe than current cancer treatment regimens.
However, there are many natural substances, like essential fatty acids, phytochemicals and micronutrients, which are supported by considerable scientific evidence, indicating these can reduce the risk for cancers and even inhibit tumour growth.
* Myths compiled by the Cancer Association of South Africa. See www.cansa.org.za, call 0800 22 66 22 (toll-free) or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org