World Cancer Day: 7 Popular Misconceptions About the Disease Debunked
From effectiveness of alternative therapies to whether smoking marijuana can cause cancer, here are seven myths surrounding the disease busted
Cancer killed around 10 million people across the world in 2021 as it's the second leading cause of death worldwide. In India, cancer cases have risen by 5% in the last two years (2018-2020).
Cancers of the head and neck region accounted for nearly one third of all cancer cases in males and gynaecologic cancers accounted for over half of all cancers in females, according to National Centre for Disease Informatics and Research. Uttar Pradesh (2.01 lakh) had the highest number of cancer cases in 2020, followed by Maharashtra (1.16 lakh), West Bengal (1.08 lakh) and Bihar (1.03 lakh).
Since cancer diagnosis and treatment has the potential to push people into poverty, this World Cancer Day, observed every February 4, the theme is 'Close the Care Gap', a global initiative to raise awareness and improve education around the disease.
So, FactChecker here debunks seven myths around the disease that act as hurdles in the way of quality cancer care.
Myth #1: Only women are diagnosed with breast cancer
Fact: Although breast cancer is most commonly found in women, the disease also occurs in men, accounting for less than 1% of all breast cancer diagnoses worldwide. All humans have breast tissue. While hormones in female bodies stimulate the breast tissue to grow, males typically don't make these hormones during and after puberty.
Incidence of male breast cancer rose by 40% between 1975 and 2015, exceeding that of women by 25%, showed data from United States Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results.
In fact, while it's rare for men under 35 years to suffer from breast cancer, the chances increase with age and the most common period of occurrence is at the age of 60 or above, found a 2020 study. It also highlighted that 81% of the surveyed population in urban Delhi did not know that breast cancer could even occur in males.
Myth #2: Smoking marijuana cannot cause cancer
Fact: Research surrounding the relation between cancer causation and marijuana is still inconclusive, according to oncologists. Although there is no direct evidence linking marijuana to cancer, cannabis smoke and tobacco smoke contain many of the same potent carcinogens, according to a study published in the National Library of Medicine. Heavy cannabis use can elevate the risk of lung cancer, it added.
"All types marijuana have multiple chemicals. One type has an addictive potential and the other has a calming effect. Recreational marijuana has an intoxicating effect. There is some evidence that marijuana medication can explode the growth of cancer cells," said Dr Sandeep Nayak P, oncologist and director, Department of Surgical Oncology & Robotic & Laparoscopic Surgery at Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru.
Myth #3: Alternative and complementary therapies cure cancer
Fact: There is no concrete evidence evaluating the effectiveness of alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, diets, meditation and exercise. These only act as palliative therapy, care meant to improve quality of life of patients, oncologists said.
When modern medicine fails to provide effective treatment, it is the patient's prerogative to see if they want alternative treatment, said Dr Nayak. "But what is most harmful is this sometimes causes delay or refusal in conventional cancer treatment or modern medicine," he told FactChecker.
While 70% cancer patients take alternative treatment with allopathic medicine, it's not something oncologists prescribe, said Dr Shripad Banavali, oncologist and director, academics at Mumbai's Tata Memorial Hospital. "But I usually don't recommend allopathic and alternative treatment to be taken together as it could worsen side effects or decrease the cure rate," he added.
Scientists from Yale School of Medicine, in a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that patients who refused to choose allopathic treatment or those who chose alternative treatment before allopathic treatment were at a higher risk of dying.
Myth #4: There is no such thing as heart cancer
Fact: Malignant primary cardiac tumors that originate in the heart can be cancerous but are extremely rare. While 75% of primary tumors are benign in origin, the remaining 25% of malignant cardiac tumors, are cardiac sarcomas such as angiosarcomas and primary cardiac lymphomas. These tumors are sometimes found in one out of every 2,000 autopsies, according to the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).
Myth #5: All lumps cause cancer
Fact: Most lumps in the body – especially those on or surrounding the breast often trigger people as they believe it to be synonymous to cancer, but eight out of 10 lumps felt on breasts are not cancerous.
"Most lumps in the body are not cancerous but a medical student is told to consider all lumps as cancerous until proven otherwise," said Dr Nayak. The reason for the extreme caution is so that no doctor misses a cancer diagnosis, he said. This is mainly in the interest of the person and is not meant to scare them.
Myth #6: Alkaline water helps cure cancer
Fact: Alkaline water has a higher potential of hydrogen than regular drinking water. On a scale of 0 to 14, with 1 being very acidic and 14 being very alkaline, the pH level of regular water is around 7 (neutral), and that of alkaline water is 8 or higher.
There is no magical cure for cancer, and there is no evidence supporting this either, said Dr Nayak. Similarly, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) also stated that no study has proven that drinking alkaline water prevents or treats cancer. "This may be because the human body naturally does an excellent job at keeping our blood at a steady 7.3 to 7.4 pH level. The body has several ways to balance the acidity and alkalinity of the blood," read the ASCO article.
Myth #7: Mobile phone and microwave radiation cause cancer
Fact: Mobile phones emit low levels of radio magnetic waves. Second, third, fourth networks (2G,3G,4G) emit radio frequency in the range of 0.7 to 2.7 GHz. These frequencies fall in the nonionizing range or the low energy range and do not damage the DNA, according to the National Cancer Institute.
When it comes to microwaves, the World Health Organization (WHO) clarified that microwave ovens are safe and do not cause cancer. "To dispel some misconceptions, it is important to realize that food cooked in a microwave oven does not become radioactive. Nor does any microwave energy remain in the cavity or the food after the microwave oven is switched off. In this respect, microwaves act just like light; when the light bulb is turned off, no light remains," explained the WHO.