Believing Cancer Myths?

I have been told that the smell of burnt coffee means you have cancer. I’ve also heard other cancer myths. Can you debunk some common ones?

– December 15, 2005

I’ve never heard the one about burnt coffee and haven’t been able to track it down. But there are plenty of other cancer myths in circulation:

  • Cancer spreads when exposed to air during surgery: This is the most widely believed cancer myth, according to a 2005 survey by the American Cancer Society (ACS). Nearly 41 percent of respondents to a telephone survey of 957 adults in the United States said that they believed that cancer can spread throughout the body during surgery. In fact, cancer does not spread during surgery, which can be highly effective treatment for many malignancies. The ACS study was published in the June 27, 2005 online issue of the journal Cancer.
  • The medical industry is withholding a cure for cancer because there’s too much money in treating patients: More than 27 percent of the survey respondents held this view and another 14 percent weren’t sure. This conspiracy theory is nonsense. First of all, cancer is not one disease but many. It is unlikely that any single “cure” would work for all of them. Besides there has been impressive progress. The ACS notes that only a few decades ago fewer than one in 10 children with leukemia survived 10 yeas after diagnosis. Today’s treatment has raised the cure rate to almost 80 percent. Similar advances have been made in curing Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bone and kidney cancers in children, and testicular cancer. Just ask Lance Armstrong.
  • Injuries can lead to cancer: This old wives tale has been around for more than a century. It was disproved a long time ago. The only known instances where cancer can stem from injuries are related to chemical burns. Swallowing caustic liquids is a risk factor for cancer of the esophagus, and skin cancer sometimes develops in scars caused by chemical or thermal burns.
  • Antiperspirants cause breast cancer: This persistent Internet hoax warns that antiperspirants or deodorants contain substances that can be absorbed through the skin or enter the body through nicks caused by shaving. There’s no evidence to support this idea and, in fact, a study published in the Oct. 16, 2002 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no increased breast cancer risk among women who reported using underarm deodorants or antiperspirants, those who used these products after shaving with a blade razor, and those who used the products within one hour after shaving with a blade razor. Other studies have reported similar results.
  • Andrew Weil, M.D.

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