How Many Cancer Myths Do You Still Believe?

Today is World Cancer Day, making it a great time to set the record straight on some common cancer myths.

Yeah! Despite cancer myths, the chances of surviving many types of cancer have never been better. (Photo: AE Pictures, Inc./Getty Images)

Feb 4, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

If you're like most people, cancer isn't something abstract—chances are you know someone who's been through it, or maybe you have yourself. The disease touches almost everyone in some way, and yet cancer myths and misperceptions are common.

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Today is World Cancer Day, sponsored by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). This year, the UICC is focused on promoting some truths and burying cancer myths. Do you think you know a lot about the disease? Take our quick quiz!

1. Cancer is primarily a problem among older people in developed nations: True or False?

2. Having cancer is more than just a health issue: True or False?

3. People with cancer have a high chance of dying from the disease: True or False?

4. There is a lot people can do to reduce their risks of cancer: True or False?

It's critical to address common cancer myths if more people are to be spared from the disease, Vanessa Von der Muhll of the UICC told TakePart. "Fear may play a role in the pervasive nature of myths surrounding cancer," she says, noting that conflicting reports in the news add to the confusion. "Big issues often pose big questions and foster misunderstanding. And cancer is a big issue. It is one of the biggest killers in the world, accounting for nearly eight million deaths per year."

Here are the quiz answers, with input from Von der Muhll.

1. Cancer is primarily a problem among older people in developed nations: FALSE

About half of all cancer cases, and more than half of all deaths, occur in less-developed parts of the world. And if trends continue, cancer cases will increase by 81.5 percnt in developing countries by 2030. Certain types of cancers occur much more often in developing nations. For example, 85 percent of deaths worldwide from cervical cancer are among women in developing countries.

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And the disease doesn't just primarily afflict the elderly. In developing nations, about half the cancer cases are in people under age 65. "Cancer is also a disease of young people," she says. "For children aged 5 to 14, cancer is a leading cause of death in many countries. There are an estimated 160,000 newly diagnosed cases of childhood cancer worldwide each year with more than 70 percent of the world's children with cancer lacking access to effective treatment. The result is an unacceptably low survival rate of about 10 percent in developing countries compared to about 90 percent in high-income countries. "

2. Having cancer is more than just a health issue: TRUE

Cancer carries social, economic, development, and human rights implications, Von der Muhll says. "In many developing countries, for example, where awareness is a big obstacle, misconceptions about diagnosis and treatment and stigma associated with cancer can lead individuals to seek alternative care in place of standard treatment or to avoid care altogether," she says. "Understanding and responding to cultural beliefs and practices is essential."

In addition, cancer both causes and is an outcome of poverty. It disrupts an individual's ability to earn a living, and treatment costs can send some families into poverty. The worldwide cost of treating cancer is estimated to reach $458 billion a year in 2030. But implementing cost-effective strategies to prevent the disease—such as programs to reduce smoking and alcohol use and to improve diets and physical activity levels—would cost only $2 billion a year.

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3. People with cancer have a high chance of dying from the disease: FALSE

Cancer is not a death sentence. Advances in understanding how and why cancer develops and how it acts in the body have revolutionized how the disease is managed. In the United States alone, there are 12 million people living with cancer.

Early-stage cancers are much more likely to be curable than ever before. Screening programs, such as mammography, have led to big reductions in cancer deaths. In countries with access to the Pap test, cervical cancer death rates have plummeted. But there's still a big gap in death rates between wealthier, developed nations and less-developed countries.

Some people may think that cancer treatment is too complex and expensive to be offered in poor nations. But a recent report shows that many off-patent cancer medications are affordable for people in those countries. More work needs to be done to make anti-cancer vaccines, such as the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, available to people worldwide.

4. There is a lot people can do to reduce their risk of cancer: TRUE

Cancer is not your fate. Even if you have a high family history of the disease, there are many strategies to reduce your risk. "A lot of people do not realize that actually one in three cancer cases could be prevented through simple lifestyle choices," Von der Muhll says. "These lifestyle factors include tobacco, alcohol intake, diet, physical inactivity, exposure to ultraviolet light, and protecting against cancer-causing infections. Improving diet, physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight could prevent around a third of the most common cancers alone."

Here is some specific prevention advice from the American Cancer Society:

• Stay away from tobacco.

• Eat healthfully: Watch your portion size. Choose vegetables, whole fruit, legumes, and fish. Stay away from calorie-dense foods like potato chips, ice cream, donuts, and sweets. Limit your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and red meats.

• Get active: Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week.

• Control your weight.

• Be safe in the sun. Use sunscreen and limit your time in the sun.

• Learn more about the environmental causes of cancer and exposures you should try to avoid.

• Understand your genetic risk and family history of cancer and what screening tests may be helpful to you.

How has cancer touched your life? How did you score on our cancer myth quiz? What are you doing to reduce your risk of cancer?

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California. She is the author of three books on health and science subjects.