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Three dangerous cancer myths debunked

There are over 100 types of cancer,1-3 which afflict over 10 million patients globally4-6 and nearly 40,000 women and 37,000 men in South Africa every year, as per the latest National Cancer Registry Report.7 The importance of cancer awareness, which often results in an increase in screening and early detection numbers, therefore cannot be overstated.8-10 In response, medical experts at pharmaceutical company Novartis South Africa, have shed light on some common cancer myths this World Cancer Day on 4 February 2024.11-13 

 

World Cancer Day’s purpose is to raise awareness of all cancers, and to encourage prevention, detection, and treatment.14 This awareness day was instituted in 2000 at the World Summit Against cancer for the New Millennium in Paris, leading to the Paris Charter, which aims to unite the global community to promote research, raise awareness, and improve healthcare.15

 

The campaign theme for 2022 to 2024, ‘Close the care gap’, encourages healthcare providers and members of the public to help raise awareness and advocate for better treatment of cancer.12 A particularly important component to raising awareness is dispelling common, and potentially harmful cancer-related myths.

 

“It’s crucial that each of us, no matter our age, gender, or ethnicity, become more aware of the various cancers, their risk factors and symptoms. Unfortunately, there are still far too many misconceptions around even the most common types of cancer. South Africans must educate themselves on this serious disease if we are to potentially reduce the number of cancer cases and improve treatment outcomes,” notes Dr Darren Katzman, Head of Medical Affairs at Novartis South Africa.

 

According to Dr Katzman, there are many prominent myths found in every culture and every group of people in South Africa. To kickstart more conversations around cancer and dispel harmful misconceptions, he addresses the following three harmful myths:

 

1.    Myth: Cancer is contagious

 

Cancer cannot be spread from one person to another, or from an animal to a person. 16-18 Cancers are very different from viruses such as Covid-19 or infections like HIV that can be acquired from another person.16-18

 

Cancer is a condition where cells mutate, grow out of control, and become malicious. 16-18 Different things can trigger these mutations, such as chemicals, certain unhealthy lifestyle habits, or genetic predispositions that make a person more susceptible to cancer.16-18 Some viruses such as the sexually transmitted disease human papillomavirus (HPV) can also increase the risk of developing cancer. 16-18

 

2.    Myth: Having relatives with cancer means you will definitely get it too

 

Some people have genetic mutations that make them more prone to cancer, but this does not mean they will definitely contract the disease.16,19, 20 Other things, such as how patients live and what environmental or lifestyle factors they are exposed to, also affect their cancer risk.16,19, 20

 

Most cancers are not caused by inherited mutations, but by changes in the genes that happen over time. These changes are not passed on to your children.16,19, 20 They are called sporadic cancers and are the most common kind. If you are worried about your family history of cancer, talk to a doctor or a genetic counselor before getting tested.16,19, 20

 

3.    Myth: Cancer is caused by injury

 

Cancers are not caused by injuries, but sometimes an injury can reveal cancer in the affected area.21-23 For instance, a cancerous tumor can weaken a bone and make it break more easily, and the broken bone can lead to the cancer diagnosis.21-23

 

Some injuries can also create lumps that are not cancerous. These can be bruises or scars that form when the body heals itself. 21-23 These lumps do not raise the risk of cancer, but they may need medical attention if they persist.21-23 Some cancers can go unnoticed for a long time before they are identified. 21-23 Some of these cancers grow slowly and can be effectively treated by doctors. Others grow faster and can be more difficult to treat. 21-23

 

“There are plenty of resources available that dispel misconceptions and provide valuable information to help raise awareness around cancer. But online sources can never replace the advice of a healthcare professional. Always visit your doctor or cancer specialist first if you believe you may have cancer. It’s always better to go for a screening and, if you do have cancerous cells, to seek treatment as early as possible,” concludes Dr Katzman.

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