Three Cancer Myths and Why It Is Important to Dispel Them

08/18/2015

Three Cancer Myths and Why It Is Important to Dispel Them
Healthy Living – August 18, 2015
                                           William Sturrock, MD dr-sturrock-(1).jpg

This summer has seen two older American statesmen make an announcement to the public regarding a recent diagnosis of cancer. The first was Maine’s own Senator Angus King with his revelation of his prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment. The second occurred last week with the report that ex-President Jimmy Carter had been diagnosed with a cancer found in the liver but apparently already spread elsewhere in the body. His physicians are still conducting tests to determine the primary organ source and cell-type which is part of making the definitive diagnosis. This will in turn allow discussion of treatment options and that all-important question of prognosis, otherwise stated as “What are my chances, doc?”

First let’s review some of the basic facts about cancer, courtesy of the CDC. Adults in the US have about a 44% chance of contracting some type of cancer (of which there are hundreds of types) but only a 22% chance of dying from it. In contrast, heart disease remains the #1 cause of mortality in the US in both men and women. Also, there is no change in the pattern for the past several decades, and there is no statistical evidence whatsoever for the mistaken assertion: “there’s more and more cancer every year in this country.”

But as I reviewed these cold numbers, I realized that they do not do justice to the emotional side of how cancer affects individuals and families. I think back to a female pt of mine who died as a young adult with breast cancer. She was constantly battling with herself because she did not believe she was maintaining a positive outlook. Her efforts to try to get more emotionally secure may have tragically decreased her survival: She delayed standard chemotherapy so that she could work more with diet and meditation. Other studies have supported this observation that a cancer diagnosis often causes individuals to engage in self-blame.

When discussing cancer with my own patients, I frequently get asked variations of the following three questions:
  1. Did I do something to bring the cancer on myself?
  2. Can my emotions make the cancer grow or affect treatment outcomes?
  3. Would relaxation exercises or a positive attitude help cure my cancer?

With help from the past 10 years of good research, we can now tell patients with confidence:
  1. No, there is nothing about your personality or moral failings that caused you to get cancer: In 2010, a large study in Finland followed 60,000 people for 30 years and showed no relationship between personality traits and developing cancer. This is important to realize to prevent the self-blame game that can happen as a consequence of this belief.
  2. No, the outcomes of your medical treatment will not depend on your emotional state: A 2007 study looked hard to see whether there was any statistical improvement in outcomes where patients graded themselves on ‘positive-thinking’ and ‘emotional well-being’ and could find no relationship.
  3. No, relaxation exercises or positive self-imaging techniques have not demonstrated better outcomes for those cancer patients using these tools in multiple studies. If these are activities are enjoyable to you, pursue them for their own value, but do not expect an unrealistic goal.
Why is it important to dispel these 3 myths? The answer to this lies in the fact that those who believe them will be more likely to needlessly blame themselves and actually become clinically depressed. Indeed, individuals with one of these 3 beliefs will also be more likely to view a person who has cancer in a negative light, because that person somehow ‘deserved’ it or was a lesser person because they contracted it. This attitude is not good for anyone’s peace-of-mind!

So how should we strive to avoid placing burden on our friends and neighbors (and ourselves) who may develop cancer? We should not be inclined to pat them on the back and say “keep your chin up and stay happy”. Rather we should take the moment to really appreciate this person, listen closely to their life-story and celebrate the mystery of sharing joys and laughter, but also tears and sorrows. Life is a great gift that someday all of us will be asked to give back again to the universal forces that created it. For the time that we can share it together, make it precious!

Frequently Asked Questions:
1. What about tobacco use or sun-tanning – Isn’t it true that some bad habits cause cancer?
Answer: Yes, it is true that the chance of acquiring some cancers such as lung or skin may be increased by these exposures, most cancers do not have a clear-cut direct cause.

2. What about all the toxins in our environment, aren’t these the cause of many cancers?
Answer: Yes and no. Decreasing exposure to harmful toxins is always a good idea and many, such as benzene and asbestos, have been shown to be carcinogenic. However, cancer is really caused by anything that can damage our DNA and that includes cosmic rays coming randomly from outer space. Luckily our cells have mechanisms that work to repair the DNA damage, and it’s only when our cells cannot stay ahead of these frequent challenges to the DNA integrity that a disease process like cancer can begin.

3. Why is our DNA so fragile?
Answer: That is the real biologic miracle! It is easily mutated, and ironically that is what ultimately allows evolution to take place! If DNA were more unchanging, we might have no cancer but we would still be one-celled organism swimming in the primordial sea.