50 Rampant Cancer Myths That Need to Die

Sometimes it seems like everything can cause cancer. Thankfully that's not true and neither are these popular myths about the dreaded disease.

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Myth: Cancer is a "fight" you have to "win"

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"Many people think of cancer as a battle that can be won by the most determined and committed patient. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case. Even the patient who follows her oncologist's instructions perfectly may succumb to her illness. The image of a prizefighter knocking out the enemy simply does not happen for many patients. Sometimes, a more realistic goal is to improve quality of life. Setting small goals for overall health can be important to monitor progress. Celebrating small achievements can be very meaningful." —Ashley Sumrall, MD, FACP, section chief of neuro-oncology at the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina 

These are hopeful cancer statistics that everyone should know.

Myth: Cancer just happens, there's nothing you can do to prevent it

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"Up to 50 percent of all cancers can be prevented through healthy lifestyle choices such as exercise, diet, and avoidance of toxins. I recommend you exercise frequently, even if it is only for a short while each time, and try to keep a routine of being physically active. It's also important to establish healthy eating habits by avoiding excess sugar and heavily processed foods and including lots of fruits and vegetables.” —Ted James, MD, MS, FACS, member of the board of directors of the American Cancer Society’s New England Division

Myth: Cancer is one disease

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"In reality there are hundreds of types of cancers. Each has a unique molecular signature and variable clinical expression. In my subspecialty of neuro-oncology, we have identified at least 120 subtypes of brain and spinal cord cancer. With an enemy this diverse, our diagnostic and therapeutic approaches must expand." —Ashley Sumrall, MD  

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Myth: Having a "cancer gene" means you're doomed to get cancer

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"Many people who have a genetic mutation associated with an increased cancer risk think there is nothing they can do to avoid it, but there are so many intricate pathways in our metabolism and in our cells. Some of these pathways can turn genes on and some can turn them off. It’s a field called eipgenetics, where environment and external influences can alter gene expression. This gives the patient power to do things, like eating a healthy diet and exercising, that can possibly affect their outcome." Dr. Yee

Myth: Superfoods can prevent or cure cancer

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"People think that there's a food or a type of food that can solve all your cancer problems and reduce your cancer risk but the evidence just isn't there. What we see from an evidence perspective is that overall dietary pattern makes a difference. Now there certainly are foods that I think of as 'super' that are really healthy and packed with nutrients, like colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy protein sources like fish and beans. We should be eating a lot of them—just not with the idea that any one of those is going to prevent cancer." Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of active living for The American Cancer Society

Myth: Cancer is hereditary; you can only get it if it runs in your family

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"There are familial patterns of inheritance with many forms of cancer, yet the most common forms of cancer are often unrelated to genetics. More importantly, even if a cancer is genetic, it does not necessarily mean that you will express that cancer. The medical field still does not fully understand why certain patients will get a cancer while other family members with similar genetics and environmental exposures will not. The take-home message: All people should live their lives in the healthiest manner possible to avoid all disease, which should include your physical and mental health." David Poulad, MD, a neurosurgeon and partner at IGEA Brain & Spine, specializing in neuro-oncology 

Scientists wish you knew these things about cancer.

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Myth: Cancer is a death sentence

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"Many people think cancer is incurable despite all the money that has been invested in decades of research. But although cancer can be a devastating diagnosis, it is not hopeless. New research in immunotherapy has enabled us to give more patients hope about managing their disease and possible beating it altogether." —David Poulad, MD  

Myth: Sugar causes cancer

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"Sugar doesn't cause cancer, nor does it worsen it. Sugar is needed to support the immune system, which helps fight cancer. Sugar (glucose) in moderation is just fine and important in a balanced diet." Anton Bilchik, MD, chief of medicine and chief of gastrointestinal research at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California

Myth: It's your fault you have cancer

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"While there are some lifestyle factors that affect cancer risk, we're not clear on what exactly causes it. Once a cancer develops it's no longer relevant how you got it. Don't waste time and energy chiding yourself—shaming yourself or others is completely unhelpful." Stephen Marcus, MD, cancer researcher and author of  Complications of Cancer

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Myth: Having surgery can cause a cancer to spread or grow

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"Cancer spreads through the blood or lymphatic system. Having surgery does not increase its potential to spread and most of the time actually decreases it." Carla Fisher, MD, assistant professor of surgery, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania 

Myth: Drinking coffee or tea can reduce your cancer risk

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"There's been a lot of research about whether green tea and coffee can effect your cancer risk. I would say the jury is still out. We know the antioxidants in fruits and vegetables are protective against cancer; what we don't really know is if those same antioxidants are in tea or coffee. I tell people if you like it then drink it but from a cancer perspective we don't know enough to say 'If you drink this it will reduce your cancer risk.'" Colleen Doyle, MS, RD

Myth: Your doctor doesn't understand your fears about cancer

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"I am a prevention expert who treats cancer patients and at the end of the day, we as experts, are no different from the average Joe. We worry about getting cancer and preventing it; we struggle with weight control, getting enough sleep, work-life balance, and prioritizing exercise. You can tell us anything." —Peter Shields, MD, deputy director and cancer prevention researcher at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and lung oncologist with the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute

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Myth: If you have cancer you should just rest and take it easy

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"An intervention like exercise has almost universally positive side effects versus other treatments that can have deleterious side effects. Exercise is a type of therapy that benefits multiple systems in the body, and may permanently alter the environment within the tumor. " —Brad Behnke, PhD, an associate professor of exercise physiology and lead author of a study examining this link

Myth: Skin cancer is only skin deep

skinexamineJPC PROD/Shutterstock “The truth is that people who have had a skin cancer are at higher risk (53% higher) for developing internal cancers, such as lung cancer, stomach cancer, etc. compared to someone who has never had a skin cancer.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD

Myth: Chemotherapy is debilitating

cancerpatientImage Point Fr/ShutterstockReality: some are and most are not. It depends on the chemotherapy recipe for the specific cancer. Therefore most chemotherapy is given as an outpatient and patients go home after treatment.” Chandler H Park, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine

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Myth: Darker skin patients can’t get skin cancer and don’t have to wear sunscreen

womanapplyingsunscreenFernandoMadeira/Shutterstock“I’ve diagnosed countless patients in the past with skin cancers in all skin types.” —Dhaval G. Bhanusali, MD, FAAD

Myth: Clinical trials to treat cancer are for patients who have run out of options

womanwithdoctorMonkey Business Images/Shutterstock“In fact, a clinical trial is always an option to possibly improve a patient’s journey with her/his disease. By participating, patients may have access to new research options before they are widely available. Clinical trials enable each patient to play an active role in his or her healthcare.”Victoria Manax Rutson, MD, Chief Medical Officer at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network 

Myth: “Young” men don’t get prostate cancer

manwithdoctorAlexander Raths/Shutterstock“While it is true that prostate cancer risk and incidence increase as a man ages, men shouldn’t be deceived into believing that it is an “old man’s disease.” In fact, more than 70,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year are diagnosed earlier than 65 years old.”S. Adam Ramin, MD, Urologist and Medical Director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles These are signs of cancer that men are likely to ignore.

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Myth: Finding a lump in your breast means you have breast cancer

womanlookingconcernedwavebreakmedia/Shutterstock“Lumps and any other changes in the breasts should be reported to a doctor, but most turn out to be benign.”Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center

Myth: Sunscreen causes skin cancer

applyingsunscreenpaultarasenko/Shutterstock“I don't know how this big lie got started, but the fact is that studies have shown that daily sunscreen use reduces the risk of skin cancer.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD 

Myth: Chemotherapy is the same for all cancers

personinhospitalbedYKTR/Shutterstock“Many patients say, ‘I know someone that received chemo.’ That's like saying, ‘I know someone that received antibiotics.’ There are so many different antibiotics and chemotherapy. Each medication is different.”Chandler H Park, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine

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Myth: People don’t die from cancer complications anymore

personholdingcigarettesruilk/Shutterstock“Movies and TV shows write in the lead characters as surviving against all odds. But the fact is so much of surviving cancer depends on following your doctor's guidelines, and, please, stop smoking. You won't believe the number of people refusing to stop smoking thinking it won't hurt them since they're seeking treatment. Yes, it will.”Darius Russin, MD

Myth: No progress has been made in fighting cancer

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“This simply isn’t true. There’s still a long way to go. There are some cancers where progress has been much slower—such as lung, brain, pancreatic and esophageal cancers. And when you lose someone you love to cancer, it can feel as though no progress has been made at all. Significant progress has been made, and many, including our team at the Medical College of Wisconsin, are performing cutting-edge research to continue the fight. We’re working hard to make sure nobody loses his or her life prematurely to the disease.Sailaja Kamaraju, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Medicine for the Medical College of Wisconsin

Myth: There is nothing you can do to lower your risk of developing breast cancer

womenexercisingAnna Jurkovska/Shutterstock“The fact is that 90 percent of breast cancers are largely due to lifestyle and environmental factors. To keep your risk as low as it can be, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, and limit the amount of alcohol you drink.”Marisa Weiss, Chief Medical Officer, President and Founder of Breastcancer.org

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Myth: Only people with fair skin are at risk for skin cancer

womanwithdoctorMonkey Business Images/Shutterstock“False. Anyone, regardless of skin color, can develop skin cancer. Everyone needs to practice good sun protection habits starting at a young age.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD

Myth: Mammograms catch all breast cancer

womangettingmamogramGagliardiImages/Shutterstock“Up to 10% of breast cancer is missed on mammogram. Thus self breast exam and physician breast exam is very important.”Chandler H Park, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor University of Louisville School of Medicine

Myth: Prostate cancer treatment always causes impotence

manwithdoctorImage-Point-Fr/Shutterstock“I have found that this is one of the reasons that men initially shy away from prostate cancer treatment once they have been diagnosed. But it simply isn’t true. Today’s state-of-the-art technology, especially when it comes to robotics, can offer tissue and nerve sparing benefits that don’t leave men permanently impotent after surgery. What’s more, this technology can be completely curative, meaning that it removes all of the cancer. The most important factor in the success of this technology is the surgeon who is using it. He or she must be highly knowledgeable about the technology and extremely skilled and experienced in using it. This gives men the best chances of successful treatment without long-lasting side effects.”S. Adam Ramin, MD, Urologist and Medical Director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles

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Myth: Cannabis cures cancer

rolledcigarettenhungboon/Shutterstock“While there is some evidence that cannabis can kill some types of cancer cells in a petri dish or in mice, there are no studies supporting this idea in humans. There is a huge gap between lab science and human treatment. The problem with this myth is that patients often want to use cannabis for treatment instead of unpleasant, but clearly proven, conventional treatment. That’s like jumping out of a plane without a parachute, even though you have one.”Jordan Tishler, MD

Myth: Mastectomies are more effective than lumpectomies

patientwithdoctorAndrei_R/Shutterstock“The chances of cancer coming back on the chest are lower with a mastectomy, however in terms of survival, an appropriately formed lumpectomy is an equivalent option.”Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center

Myth: Chemotherapy means you will lose your hair

manreceivingchemotherapyTyler Olson/Shutterstock“Just as there is not one type of cancer, there is also not one type of chemotherapy. It is true, there are certain therapies that do cause hair loss, but there are many that do not. The chemotherapy that is utilized depends on the type of cancer as well as the stage of the cancer. Movies focus on the ones with the more dramatic effects most often because they are exactly that, more dramatic. But many chemotherapies are very well tolerated and have much more subtle side effects.”Allen Kamrava, MD, MBA, FACS, FASCRS 

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Myth: I’m less likely to develop skin cancer if I use a tanning bed versus lying in the sun

womanintanningbedESB Professional/Shutterstock“Make no mistake about, it, studies have proven that tanning bed use increases the risk of skin cancer dramatically.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD

Myth: Childhood immunizations (and even the newborn vitamin K shot) can cause cancer

kidreceivingvaccineantoniodiaz/Shutterstock“Absolutely no credible evidence for this classic myth, and yet the anti-immunization forces continue to push this myth on trusting young parents.” —James Fahner, Division Chief For Hematology And Oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital

Myth: If you have breast cancer you should avoid soy product

Avoid-SoyOdua-Images/Shutterstock “Soy is often feared because it is a photo (plant) estrogen. There is no definitive data suggesting that natural soy product (miso, edamame etc) as part of a healthy diet increases cancer risk. To the contrary, there is some evidence that soy may decrease risk of breast cancer but this needs to be better evaluated.”Marleen I. Meyers, MD, Director of Perlmutter Cancer Center Survivorship Program at NYU Langone

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Myth: One application of sunscreen is enough to protect my skin from skin cancer

womanapplyingsunscreenCreative Family/Shutterstock“Sunscreen is an over the counter drug and requires reapplication to maintain its effectiveness.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD 

Myth: Bras can cause breast cancer

womaputtingonbraArman Zhenikeyev/Shutterstock“The fact is that underwire bras do not cause breast cancer. A 2014 scientific study looked at the link between wearing a bra and breast cancer. There was no real difference in risk between women who wore a bra and women who didn't wear a bra.”Marisa Weiss Chief Medical Officer, President and Founder of Breastcancer.org

Myth: Scientists really know the cure to cancer: they are just hiding it so the healthcare system gets rich from chemo drugs and radiation treatments

scientistresearchingA and N photography/Shutterstock“A mean-spirited and hurtful lie. Any responsible member of an oncology care team dedicates their professional lives to providing compassionate care to patients with cancer, and they work hard to find new cures every day.” – James Fahner, Division Chief For Hematology And Oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital

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Myth: Antiperspirants cause breast cancer

deodorantVolkova Vera/ShutterstockPeople inaccurately believe that if you can’t sweat, your toxins build up and may potentially lead to a tumor, but there’s no evidence to suggest that antiperspirants can cause cancer.”Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center 

Myth: If I don’t smoke or drink I won’t get head or neck cancer

thyroidscanBork/Shutterstock “It is correct that the risk of head and neck cancer increases exponentially in smokers and drinkers but there are other risk factors that can cause some one to develop head and neck cancers. These can include age, genetics and even infection by human papilloma virus.”Reena Gupta, MD, Voice Specialist

Myth: After age 18, it’s too late to start a sun protection regimen to prevent skin cancer

womanappylingsunscreenwavebreakmedia/Shutterstock“Actually, it's never too late to start good habits in sun protection, and it is possible to undo existing sun damage with skin care and treatments.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD

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Myth: Men do not get breast cancer

manwithdoctorImage Point Fr/Shutterstock “Although male breast cancer incidences represent less than 1 percent of all cases, men can still be affected.”Brian O’Hea, Chief of Breast and Oncologic Surgery at Stony Brook Medicine and Director of the Carol M. Baldwin Breast Cancer Center 

Myth: I don’t need to think about developing skin cancer during the winter

personinwinterlandscapeBlazej-Lyjak/Shutterstock“Not true! Sun damage can happen at any time of the year, and because of the earth's tilt in the winter, there is a higher proportion of deeper penetrating UVA rays getting through.”Vivian Bucay, MD, FAAD

Myth: When it comes to cancer, children are just like “little adults”

kidshandchairoij/Shutterstock“Biologically, children’s cancers (most often undifferentiated embryonic tumors) are distinctly different than adult cancers (most often epithelial cancers or carcinomas), and have dramatically different responses to therapy, and significantly different outcomes, generally much higher cure rates.”James Fahner, Division Chief For Hematology And Oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital

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Myth: You must have symptoms to have prostate cancer

manwithdoctorImage Point Fr/Shutterstock“Actually, prostate cancer is among the least symptomatic cancers known to the medical community. What that means is that most men who have it don’t know it. Many of the patients I’ve treated had their prostate tumors discovered during a routine examination for another condition or from a lab report of blood work at their annual physical. In addition, some of the most common symptoms associated with prostate cancer can be mistaken for something else. But if a man in your life is having pain or difficulty with urination, pain or difficulty with erection or ejaculation and stiffness in the lower back, hips or upper thighs, these are signs that absolutely need to be evaluated by an urologist.”S. Adam Ramin, MD, Urologist and Medical Director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles

Myth: Cutting the cancer out can cause it to explode

surgeonsS_L/Shutterstock“Surgery is the cornerstone for treatment of many solid tumors, especially head and neck cancer, cancer surgery must be performed by experts who understand the anatomy of the organ and biology of the tumor being removed.” —Sandeep Samant, MD, Chief of Head and Neck Surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital

Myth: Radiation is dangerous

radiationroomTyler Olson/Shutterstock“I hear this frequently. While radiation in general is dangerous, radiation delivered in the medical setting is safer than ever. Robotic technology, image guidance, sophisticated software, motion management systems are a few of the major technological developments in the last decade that has made radiation to kill cancer so much safer.”Editha Krueger, Radiation Oncologist at Radiology Associates of Appleton, ThedaCare and BellinHealth

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Myth: Colonoscopies cause cancer

colonoscopytoolRobert Przybysz/Shutterstock“This is not true and something a patient actually told me today. She called me wanting to discuss her upcoming colonoscopy with concerns because she read a Facebook article that said the colonoscopies actually CAUSE cancer. This is not true, and it is concerning that this is something floating around on the Internet.” —Jennifer Caudle, Family Physician and Assistant Professor at Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine

Myth: Colon cancer only affects men

patientmeetingwithdoctorSyda Productions/Shutterstock"It is important for people to know that men and women are at equal risk for colon cancer. In the United States, colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in both men and women, and the second leading cause of death from a cancer in both sexes combined. However, screening can help to prevent many cases of colorectal cancer by identifying polyps that have the potential to become cancerous. Screening also helps us to identify colorectal cancer early, when it is easier to treat." – Greg FitzHarris, Surgeon, Sentara Surgery Specialists

Myth: I’m young so I can’t have cancer

doctorwithpatientuzhursky/Shutterstock“Although it is generally accepted that the risk of some cancers increases with age, there are several other types of cancer such as leukemia and lymphoma that can afflict younger patients. It is recommended to always seek a medical opinion for any concerning symptom.” – Hootan Zandifar, MD, FACS

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Myth: Cell phones can cause cancer

cellphoneLDprod/Shutterstock“To date, there is no conclusive evidence that supports a direct correlation between cell phone use and brain tumors. Cell phones basically work by using RF (radiofrequency waves). This is a form of very low electromagnetic energy that is unlikely to cause cancer since these are essentially a form of non-ionizing radiation.”David Poulad, MD, FAANS, Neurosurgeon

Myth: X-rays (or CT scans) cause cancer

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CT scans are done as clinically indicated only; we do not routinely perform CT's. While X-rays and other medical imaging does expose one to radiation, a risk factor for cancer, the amount of radiation from a single scan or X-ray is relatively small, and for many cancer screening procedures like mammography, the radiation dose is less than the average annual dose of background radiation that we all are exposed to in our day to day environments. When patients are misinformed about increased risk from CT scans, some fraction of them will refuse the CT scan.  What they gain by refusing the CT scan is nothing, since the change in cancer risk is within the range of normal variation from year to year.  However, refusing the scan will cause the patient to lose critical diagnostic information that is potentially lifesaving.”Sailaja Kamaraju, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Medicine for the Medical College of Wisconsin


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