6 Scary Cancer Myths, Debunked

Misconceptions can be worse than reality

scary cancer myths debunked

“Cancer” is a powerful word that evokes strong feelings. It’s a word associated with a lot of fear. It shouldn’t. According to oncologist Michael McNamara, MD, many patients come with preconceived notions about cancer that are inaccurate — and often scarier than the reality.

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Myth 1: Cancer is always fatal.

Most forms of cancer, depending on when they’re caught, are treatable and curable. Some forms of cancer are even curable at advanced stages. In addition to curing advanced testicular cancer and lymphomas (Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin lymphomas), we usually expect to cure most early forms of breast, colon, prostate and skin cancer, including melanoma.

Myth 2: Cancer will make your hair fall out.

Cancer itself won’t make your hair fall out. Of course some forms of cancer treatment — chemotherapy and radiation — can. So there’s an element of truth here.

But you should know that there are lots of treatments that cause limited or no hair loss. I’d estimate around half of the chemotherapies we use don’t cause hair loss. Many newer, targeted drugs, too, that aren’t traditional won’t cause you to lose your hair during treatment.

Myth 3: Cancer is contagious.

You can’t catch cancer from another person. Not through contact or secretions or anything in the air. Cancer is not contagious.

Here again, though, an element of truth: Some viruses and infections can increase your cancer risk. The best-known example of this is human pappilomavirus (HPV), which can lead to an increased risk of cervical and oropharyngeal cancer, a type of head and neck cancer. Epstein-Barr virus is linked to nose and throat cancer and certain lymphomas. Cancers from viruses can take decades after exposure to take place.

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Myth 4: Cancer is always painful.

Some cancers never cause pain. For those that do, one of our main focuses in treating cancer is paying attention to pain. Palliative care — pain management — is a huge aspect of treatment. It’s very important to talk to your doctor about your pain.

Myth 5: “My mom had cancer — that means I’ll get it too.”

Having a family member with cancer may modestly increase your risk of developing certain cancers, like breast or colon cancer. Still, developing cancer in these cases isn’t inevitable.

Some people have a very strong family history of cancer, or a family member diagnosed at an unusually young age. Both suggest the presence of a heritable cancer gene, like the breast cancer gene BRCA1. We have testing for many of these mutations and work closely with genetic counselors.

But here’s the bottom line: Most people with cancer have no family history of the disease. And most people with a family history of cancer never develop the disease.

Myth 6: Cancer always has to be treated immediately. 

Surprisingly, no. Because you get a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean it has to be treated right away. We can wait. That’s hard to tell some people and hard for them to understand.

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For some slow-growing cancers, rather than go charging in with invasive treatments, we often use “watchful waiting,” where we observe to see if the cancer spreads. These cancers include slow-growing lymphomas and leukemias, as well as some forms of prostate cancer. Or sometimes the best option is to use therapies that manage rather than cure the disease, where people can live for years with the cancer.

In some circumstances it may be appropriate to do nothing at all. If you have other significant diseases cancer may not be the biggest threat, or if you’re in late stages of a cancer you may choose not have treatment for the cancer but receive palliative care to keep you comfortable.

It all depends on what you need.

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