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Cancer Myths

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 10, 2023

We’ve all been there. A family member or a friend tells you about a theory they have about something from our daily lives that is a cause of cancer. Sometimes these ideas appear to make sense, and they may even be rooted in a notion that was once thought to be true. Often though, they lack any scientific evidence, and they may lead you to worry needlessly.

Let’s look at some of the most common myths about cancer.


Cancer is a modern disease


One of the most common cancer myths is that it is a modern disease. Many people are surprised to discover that cancer has been around for millennia. We have historical accounts from ancient physicians describing treating patients with cancer. So cancer is not a new disease. However, what is true is that several factors have made it appear as if it may be a new phenomenon.


For one thing, we are living longer due to our success in tackling historical causes of death. Cancer often develops from DNA damage to our cells, which can build up as we age. Due to this, our chances of developing cancer have increased because we are living longer.


Another reason: Thanks to advances in pathology, screening, and imaging, we can now more accurately diagnose cancer than we could in the past.


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Cancer - Advances in Treatment

Cancer - Advances in Treatment

Cancer is a death sentence


Back in our grandparents’ generation, there was a certain amount of mystery around cancer. In some communities, more superstitious people would not even refer to it by name, calling it names such as “the illness.” Survival rates were pretty low, and most people believed a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. However, this is no longer the case.


Since the 1990s, the death rate from cancer in the U.S. has steadily been declining. The current five-year survival rate for all types of cancer is about 67 percent, and in the case of some cancers such as breast, thyroid, and prostate, the five-year survival rate is at least 90%.


Cancer is contagious


Cancer is not a contagious disease. The only way you can get cancer from another person is to receive an organ or tissue transplant from a patient with a history of cancer. Even then, the risk of cancer is extremely low at about 0.02%. Still, many doctors avoid using tissues and organs from former cancer patients at all.


It’s important to point out that there are some cancers that are caused by viruses, and the virus that is associated with that cancer may be transmitted from person to person. There are also types of cancer that are linked to eating certain foods or other habits that tend to run in families. You don’t “catch” cancer from your family, but you might pick up a certain habit related to cancer, such as smoking, from your family members.


Cancer always has a genetic risk


While there is something to this theory, it is not always the case. Cancer is caused by harmful mutations in a person’s genes. However, only about 5-10% of all cancers are caused by a harmful mutation inherited from the patient’s parents. When it occurs, family members usually develop the same type of cancer as opposed to different ones. This also dispels the opposite myth that you are unlikely to get it if you have no family history of a particular cancer. As mentioned above, though, you may pick up habits from your family that are related to certain types of cancer. 


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Cancer - Genetics

Cancer - Genetics

Cellphones cause cancer


The theory that cellphones cause cancer is another common cancer myth. It is based on concerns that the radiation emitted by cellphones can cause tumors. However, the radiation that cell phones produce is non-ionizing and is not powerful enough to damage DNA and cause cancer. Research is continuing in this area, but currently, there is no link between cell phones and cancer.


Microwaves cause cancer


Like cellphones, there is a myth that the non-ionizing radiation that microwaves emit causes cancer. Even though microwave ovens do produce more radiation than cell phones, there is still no scientific evidence that they cause cancer.


Some say that microwaving food in plastic containers or wraps releases substances that lead to cancer. There is also no evidence for this. The theory is probably born out of the knowledge that using non-microwave-safe plastic containers can often cause them to melt and release harmful chemicals into your food. This is not a cancer issue but a general health issue. People need to stop microwaving food in plastic containers that weren’t made for microwaves.


Overeating sugar or using artificial sweeteners causes cancer


While it is true that cancer cells consume more glucose than other cells, there is no scientific evidence that sugar or sugary foods cause or worsen cancer.


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Cancer - Lifestyle Risk Factors

Cancer - Lifestyle Risk Factors

Similarly, there is no evidence that artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, can increase cancer risk. In fact, most artificial sweeteners have been approved by the FDA.


Superfoods can prevent cancer


You’ve probably seen many websites writing about “superfoods” that can prevent all manner of diseases and ailments. However, while eating garlic, broccoli, and other foods in moderation, along with drinking green tea, will help you maintain a healthy diet, there is no evidence of any food being able to prevent cancer.


Antiperspirants cause breast cancer


The theory that underarm antiperspirants or deodorants can cause breast cancers is likely to be based on some reports suggesting that some of the substances they contain, like parabens, could be absorbed into the skin. However, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that any deodorant or antiperspirant causes or increases a person’s breast cancer risk.


Many more theories continue to be put forward by people about how a person might develop cancer. The safest and most sensible option for cancer theories is to trust reliable, science-backed sources for what is true and what is merely a myth.

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