6 Biggest Myths About Cancer -- And Why They Are Wrong

Cancer trails only heart disease as America's leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

However, all cancers - and their treatments - aren't the same, and don't affect every patient in the same way, says hematologist and oncologist Judah Friedman, MD.

“It's hard not to jump to conclusions when you learn that you have cancer,” Dr. Friedman says. “It's true that cancer can be very aggressive and can result in a quick death. But that isn't true in most cases. That's just one of many misperceptions people have about cancer and its treatment.”

Here are six of the most common misperceptions about cancer, according to Dr. Friedman:

Myth: Older people are not candidates for treatment.

Fact: “There is no specific age at which people will be denied treatment in general,” he says. “Every case is handled differently, depending on the type and advancement of the cancer, and a person's ability to withstand treatment. We have treated cancer patients who have been in their 90s. An 80-year-old might be in excellent health and a marathon runner - somebody who we say is, '80 going on 60.' On the other hand, a 60-year-old patient may be less healthy due to current or previous medical conditions, lifestyle, etc. Generally, we can modify the dose of chemotherapy, for example, to account for an individual's particular situation.”

Myth: Avoiding sugar kills cancer.

Fact: “It's true that cancer cells, like all cells, use sugar to grow and divide,” he says. “So the theory is that if people reduce sugar in their diet, they will have control over the growth of the cancer. Unfortunately, cells will grow regardless of whether you eat sugar or not.”

What is important, he says, is that people eat a healthy diet -- before and after they're diagnosed with cancer.

“You need to stay strong in order to fight the cancer,” he says. “Eating food with sugar in it is okay, but preferably if it's natural. Fruits and vegetables have sugar, but they are naturally proportioned with sugars, fibers and carbohydrates, which allows the body to properly metabolize the sugars.”

Myth: Chemotherapy makes patients perpetually sick.

Fact: “Compared to the treatments of 20 or 30 years ago, some of the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as radiation therapy, are more moderate for many patients today,” he says. “Some chemo treatments today are mild, and some aren't, and everybody responds differently to various treatments. But in general, we can often reduce nausea with new medications. Radiation treatment today targets the tumor more precisely than in the past, which reduces the burning of surrounding tissue.”

Before treatment begins, your oncologist should explain what side effects you might expect and what can be done to ease the effects.

Myth: Cancer treatment weakens your immune system.

Fact: It is true that chemotherapy usually compromises a person's immune system, making them more susceptible to infections. But Dr. Friedman says that for certain cancers, a relatively new and growing treatment called immunotherapy works with a person's immune system to destroy cancer cells. Immunotherapy, he says, has become a “fourth pillar” of cancer treatment, along with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

“Your immune system is designed to track down and destroy foreign invaders like cancer cells,” Dr. Friedman says. “The problem is that cancer cells are very good at hiding themselves so they can't be attacked. Immunotherapy uncloaks the cancer cells so that the body's immune system can do its job and kill them. It isn't a new concept, but until recently, science didn't know exactly how to make it work. During the past three to five years, immunotherapy has become used increasingly for certain types of cancer, primarily lung cancer. Over time, we hope to find ways to make it effective against other types of cancer.”

Myth: Herbs and dietary supplements can cure cancer.

Fact: Although it's reasonable for a cancer patient to explore non-medical treatments, Dr. Friedman says there is no proof that herbs – including marijuana – and other supplements can reduce cancer cells.

“One of the most common questions I am asked is about medical marijuana,” he says. “Some people feel that cannabinoids can fight cancer or help you live longer. There are very few scientific studies that prove that. There are some studies that show that marijuana can help relieve nausea and pain and increase appetite. One day they may find something in that plant with cancer-fighting properties, but we're not there yet.”

Dr. Friedman says lab research on leukemia has shown that curcumin, a substance found in turmeric, may have anti-cancer properties, and research has shown vitamin D to be effective in reducing the chance of cancer recurrence.

“There is very little harm in looking for things that will help your situation, but it is a good idea to talk with your doctor about it,” he says.

Myth: A positive attitude helps with recovery.

Fact: Possibly true, Dr. Friedman says, although there is no scientific proof of it.

“I think having a positive attitude is beneficial in motivating people to engage in the treatment process, which may help to improve the results,” he says. “Reducing stress has been shown to strengthen the immune system. Exercising and staying active can be beneficial, and getting proper nutrition can really help to improve the results of treatment. That is no myth.”

Judah Friedman, MD is a hematology and oncology specialist at University Hospitals Geauga Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Friedman or any University Hospitals doctor online.

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