10 Cancer Myths

A young woman receives chemotherapy.
Less than half of those diagnosed with cancer will die from the disease.
Kevin Laubacher/Taxi/Getty Images

Cancer Myth 1: The risk of dying from cancer in the United States is increasing.

Respondents Who Agreed: 68 percent


Origin of Myth: Many people believe that their risk for cancer is growing because cancer figures are sometimes reported out of context. The actual number of people who are diagnosed and who die of cancer each year has indeed grown — because the U.S. population is growing larger, and is aging. Cancer is more common among the elderly, so more cases are to be expected as the average age of the U.S. population increases. A closer look at the numbers by age group shows the cancer risk for Americans is actually dropping.

Reality: The risk of being diagnosed with cancer and the risk of dying of cancer have decreased since the early 1990s. Fewer than half the people diagnosed with cancer today will die of the disease. Some are completely cured, and many more people survive for years with a good quality of life, thanks to treatments that control many types of cancer.

Cancer is not one disease, but many different diseases with different causes. For that reason one breakthrough "cure for cancer" is probably not likely to come along. There probably won't be one date in history when people remember that the cure for cancer was announced — just as infectious diseases weren't conquered on one particular day. Instead, every year will bring more and more cures for more and more types of cancer.

2: Harmful Chemicals in Grilled Meats Cause Cancer

steaks on charcoal grill
Grilling meats over charcoal might be tasty, but could increase your risk of cancer.
©iStockphoto.com/Diane Diederich

Cancer Myth 2: Regularly eating meat cooked on a charcoal grill won't increase cancer risk.

Respondents Who Agreed: 56 percent


Origin of Myth: Nutrition advice in the media has been contradictory about the health effects of grilled meats. Compared with frying in oil, grilling or baking meats avoids adding extra fat and associated calories to the meal. But chemists have found grilling meats creates chemicals linked to cancer in animals.

Reality: You can increase your cancer risk by eating too much grilled red meat or chicken or even meat pan-fried at a very high temperature. Meat or chicken that is well-done or burnt appears to be the most problematic.

Based on the existing research, the best approach may be to enjoy grilled meats occasionally, but not on a regular basis. This is a judgment call, but it makes sense to limit your exposure to carcinogens (chemicals linked to cancer), which are found in these grilled meats.

The worrisome chemicals created by grilling meats are called heterocyclic amines (HAs). They form during grilling, broiling or even searing meat in a very hot frying pan — when the very high temperatures break down the amino acid creatinine. There is also some concern that fats from the meat dripping onto coals create additional chemicals in smoke that may land back on the meat.

When you do grill or broil meat, you can minimize your consumption of unhealthful chemicals in a few ways:

  • Don't eat blackened or burnt parts.
  • Precook meats in the oven or microwave, and then finish on the grill for just a few minutes.
  • Substitute grilled vegetables or fruits for part of the meat in your meal.
  • Eat smaller portions of grilled meats.

Many of the chemicals created when meat is grilled are not formed during the grilling of vegetables or fruits, so people can enjoy grilled flavor without unhealthful chemicals. Fruits and vegetables that work well on the grill include onions, green and red bell peppers, zucchini, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, pineapple, papaya or mango. Skewers that alternate small bites of meat with vegetables or fruit are an easy way to maximize flavor and minimize unhealthful chemicals. Don't substitute processed (luncheon) meats for grilled meat, though. Processed meats contain different kinds of carcinogens that may be even more harmful.

What you eat is even more important than how it's cooked. The best advice is to follow a diet in which foods from plant sources predominate.

For more information, the ACS book Cancer: What Causes It, What Doesn't provides an educated perspective on what cancer health hazards people may face in everyday life, and what's not worth worrying about.

3: Sunscreen Once a Day

Woman applying moisturizer to shoulder
Sunscreen acts as a shield against harmful UV rays from the sun.
Dylan Ellis/Getty Images

Cancer Myth 3: You can prevent skin cancer by putting on one application of sunscreen at the start of each day.

Respondents Who Agreed: 43 percent


Origin of Myth: Poor understanding of directions for sunscreen use.

Reality: The use of sunscreen on a daily basis is a good practice for reducing skin cancer risk. The problem with it is that it can sometimes give a false sense of security. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied, and even then it still only confers a certain amount of protection.

Mistakes in sunscreen use are common and may indicate that people don't understand the importance of protecting themselves from skin cancer. Visible symptoms of skin cancer don't show up for many years, and not long ago a tan was considered healthy. A sunburn will fade in a few days - out of sight, out of mind. The problem is what people don't see can hurt them. Sun damage remains in deeper layers of skin. It's cumulative and can eventually cause cancer.

More than 1 million cases of the curable basal cell or squamous cell cancers will be diagnosed this year. The most serious skin cancer, melanoma, is expected to be diagnosed in about 54,200 people in 2003.

Dermatologist Mark Jaffee, M.D., tells people, "Skin cancer develops slowly over time. Almost picture it as a photograph developing. The damage is done, the exposure's been done, and we're just waiting years and years for that damage to show itself on the surface of the skin."

How to Shield Your Skin

To insure your skin is safe from UV rays, make sun protection a daily habit and a part of the ritual of going to the pool, beach or park. Keep hats, long-sleeved shirts, sunscreen and other supplies near the door in a small duffel bag or in your car. Review the five protective methods listed below, and try to expand beyond only using sunscreen.

  • Cover up. Choose shirts and pants to protect as much skin as possible.
  • Use sunscreen. Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Wear a hat. Choose a hat that shades the face, neck and ears.
  • Wear sunglasses. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that block UV rays.
  • Limit sun exposure. Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.

Avoid Sunscreen Mistakes

For people with fair skin who can begin to burn in 15 minutes of bright sunlight, using sunscreen every day is important, and it should be reapplied according to the directions on the bottle. Many companies recommend another coat of sunscreen every two hours.

For maximum effect, generously apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before going outside. About a palm-full of sunscreen should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck and face of the average adult.

If swimming or perspiring, you will probably need to reapply sunscreen more often than usual. Remember that sunscreen usually rubs off when you towel yourself dry.

Products labeled "waterproof" provide protection for at least 80 minutes even when swimming or sweating. Products that are "water resistant" may provide protection for only 40 minutes. Most sunscreen products expire within two to three years, but you should check the expiration date on the container for the date it becomes ineffective.

4: Does Household Bug Spray Cause Cancer?

Cancer Myth 4: Household bug spray can cause cancer.

Respondents Who Agreed: 41 percent


Origin of Myth: Frequent news reports about studies in which the chemicals found in bug sprays cause cancer in mice.

Reality: Available evidence does not suggest a link between household use of pesticides (bug spray) and cancer. On the other hand, these products can be dangerous if precautions regarding breathing and direct contact are not followed. Careful use of pesticides is especially important for agricultural workers, who may be exposed at much higher levels than people who occasionally spray a bug in their home or garden.

When animal studies are reported in the news, people often get the false impression that the pesticide (or other chemical) discussed is a clear and present danger to humans in their daily activities. In reality, researchers use very high doses of a chemical in animal tests — exposures that people would never encounter. If consumers come in contact with a pesticide, it's at a very low concentration. These exposures have not been associated with increased cancer risk.

When Fear Hides the Facts About Cancer

If people become so worried about pesticides that they avoid eating vegetables and fruit, they may be doing more harm than good. Even though fruits and vegetables sold in groceries may contain trace amounts of pesticides, people who eat more fruits and vegetables clearly have lower cancer risks than people who eat few fruits and vegetables.

The American Cancer Society publication Good for You! offers practical everyday tips for reducing your risk of developing cancer.

5: Surgery for Cancer

Cancer Myth 5: Treating cancer with surgery causes it to spread throughout the body.

Respondents Who Agreed: 41 percent


Origin of Myth: This myth may have started many years ago when most patients already had very advanced cancers by the time they sought medical care. Doctors may have operated to find the cause of a patient's illness and found an advanced cancer that could not be treated successfully. When the patient died a short time later, observers thought the surgery caused the cells to spread and killed the patient.

Reality: Specialists in cancer surgery know how to safely take biopsy samples and to remove tumors without causing spread of the cancer. In many cases, surgery is an essential part of the cancer treatment plan.

For a few types of cancer, surgeons take extra precautions to prevent any chance of the cancer spreading. For example, in testicular cancer the entire testicle containing the cancer is removed, so no cancer cells are dislodged. Doctors who perform surgery for cancer are specialists and are highly trained in the intricacies of cancer and anatomy.

Learning about treatment options such as surgery is very helpful and can be reassuring to patients going through the cancer experience.

6: Air Pollution or Smoking: Which Is the Greater Risk?

Cancer Myth 6: Living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Respondents Who Agreed: 40 percent


Origin of Myth: Unknown. This myth appeals to smokers, who are trying to convince themselves that tobacco use isn't all that bad.

Reality: The truth is just the opposite, but more than a third of those questioned in the Discovery Health/Prevention survey agreed with the myth that living in a polluted city is a greater risk for lung cancer than smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Air pollution is far less likely to cause lung cancer than smoking cigarettes. Being a smoker, or even being frequently exposed to secondhand smoke is more dangerous than the level of air pollution encountered in U.S. cities.

Dirty air does contribute to lung cancer risk, but has a greater impact on heart disease, asthma and chronic bronchitis. American Cancer Society (ACS) vice president of epidemiology and surveillance Michael Thun, M.D., estimates that air pollution increases the risk of lung cancer by 1/100th of the increased risk brought on by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Most people tend to overestimate the risk caused by factors imposed on them by others and to underestimate the seriousness of risks caused by their own behavior.

Lung cancer was a rare disease at the beginning of the 20th century, when few people smoked. The introduction of manufactured cigarettes, which made them readily available, changed this. About 87 percent of lung cancers are thought to result from smoking or passive exposure to tobacco smoke. Today, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in men and women — expected to cause 157,200 deaths in 2003. The longer you smoke and the more packs per day you smoke, the greater your risk.

If you stop smoking before a cancer develops, your damaged lung tissue gradually starts to return to normal. Ten years after stopping smoking, your risk is reduced to one-third of what it would have been if you continued to smoke. Cigar smoking and pipe smoking are almost as likely to cause lung cancer as cigarette smoking. There is no evidence that smoking low tar cigarettes reduces the risk of lung cancer.

Secondhand Smoke

If you don't smoke, but breathe in the smoke of others (secondhand smoke or environmental tobacco smoke) you are also at increased risk for lung cancer. A nonsmoker who is married to a smoker has a 30 percent greater risk of developing lung cancer than the spouse of a nonsmoker. Workers who have been exposed to tobacco smoke in the workplace are also more likely to get lung cancer.

More effective ways to quit smoking have made headlines in the last year, including free telephone quitlines, which offer personal counseling to find the best mix of medicine and quitting methods for each person.

7: Do Injuries Cause Cancer?

elevated view of a boy looking at his cut and bruised knee
Could injuries lead to cancer?

Cancer Myth 7: Some injuries can cause cancer later in life.

Respondents Who Agreed: 37 percent


Origin of Myth: This is probably an outdated belief that dates at least back to the 1800s. From that time until the 1920s even some scientists thought cancer was caused by trauma. The belief lived on despite the failure of inducing cancer through trauma in experimental animals, and was perpetuated by the reasonably common experience of people discovering a tumor shortly after an injury.

Apparently, old beliefs die hard because more than one-third of those questioned in the Discovery Health/Prevention survey agreed with the myth that injuries can lead to cancer.

Reality: The fact is that a fall, a bruise or any other injury is almost never the cause of a cancer. Sometimes a person might visit the doctor for an injury and a tumor is found at that time. But the injury did not cause the tumor; it was already there. It's also common for people to pay more attention to an injured part of their body, and some people discover tumors while rubbing a painful area.

In very rare cases, long-standing and/or severe injuries can increase cancer risk, but these account for a small fraction of cancer cases. For example, skin cancer risk is somewhat increased in scars caused by thermal or chemical burns, and chemical burns caused by swallowing caustic liquids are a risk factor for cancer of the esophagus. Such rare exceptions may have given credibility to this myth.

Long-standing infections, however, such as certain forms of hepatitis or the bacteria that contribute to stomach ulcers, lead to more cancers than injuries do.

8: Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Cancer Myth 8: Electronic devices, like cell phones, can cause cancer in the people who use them.

Respondents Who Agreed: 30 percent


Origin of Myth: Lawsuits and news headlines have fueled the myth that cell phones cause cancer, particularly brain cancer, and 30 percent of Americans still believe this myth, according to the Discovery Health/Prevention telephone survey.

Reality: A few studies suggested a link with certain rare types of brain tumors, but the consensus among well-designed population studies is that there is no consistent association between cell phone use and brain cancer.

Consumers could easily have missed the reports showing no danger from cell phones because they didn't receive alarming front-page coverage like the original reports. What has been proven is that using a cell phone while driving increases the risk of having a car accident. So, keeping your hands free and your eyes on the road is a more significant issue for people who use cell phones.

No Apparent Cancer Link for Other Electronic Devices

Considerable research has also found no clear association between any other electronic consumer products and cancer. Cell phones, microwave ovens and related appliances emit low-frequency radiation — the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that includes radio waves and radar. Ionizing radiation such as gamma rays and X-rays can increase cancer risk by causing changes to DNA in cells of the body. Low frequency, non-ionizing radiation does not cause these DNA changes.

For people who are still suspicious about any possible health effects from cell phones, the Food and Drug Administration Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH) offers advice to people concerned about their risk. Experts from the CDRH can explain practical ways to minimize exposure to radio-frequency radiation while using a cell phone. Also, people can choose digital rather than analog telephones.

For more information, the ACS book Cancer: What Causes It, What Doesn't provides an educated perspective on what cancer health hazards people may face in everyday life, and what's not worth worrying about.

9: The Cancer Cure

why doesn't the fda regulate herbs
Herbs are believed to have properties that can cure cancer. Why doesn't the fda regulate herbs?
Matka Wariatka/Dreamstime

Cancer Myth 9: There is currently a cure for cancer, but the medical industry won't tell the public about it because they make too much money treating cancer patients.

Respondents Who Agreed: 28 percent


Origin of Myth: Urban Legend

Reality: One overarching fact that clearly disputes this conspiracy theory is that doctors and laboratory scientists along with their families die of cancer at the same rate as everyone else in the United States. There is one exception, though. Health-care professionals and biomedical researchers are less likely to develop and/or die of lung, larynx, esophageal and other tobacco-related cancers because they are more aware of the dangers of tobacco and are less likely to smoke than the rest of the population.

And why would anyone hide a cure for cancer? Medical breakthroughs of all kinds are quickly announced and applied — as the world has seen with antibiotics and vaccines, such as the polio vaccine.

Also, finding one all-encompassing cure for cancer is unlikely. Cancer comes in many different forms, and for several of them, there are already cures available for the majority of patients.

Only a few decades ago, less than one in 10 children with leukemia survived 10 years after diagnosis. With modern chemotherapy, the cure rate for these children is almost 80 percent. Examples of similar progress include Hodgkin's lymphoma, bone and kidney cancers in children, and testicular cancer.

Fewer than half of all people with cancer in the United States actually die of the disease — and many who are not "cured" of cancer still go on living for years with relatively few changes in their lives, thanks to years of research, which has produced many advances in the fight against many of the different types of the disease. But to suggest that there currently exists an all-encompassing cure for cancer that doctors are aware of is quite inaccurate.

10: Early Lifestyle Choices and Cancer

Cancer Myth 10: What someone does as a young adult has little impact on their chances of getting cancer later in life.

Respondents Who Agreed: 25 percent


Origin of Myth: Many teens and young adults have a feeling of immortality — that bad things only happen to other people. Each teen who tries smoking cigarettes, for example, is convinced that he or she won't become addicted and can quit at any time. They think that it's only the other kids or adults who become addicted to nicotine for years, not them.

Reality: The truth is that lifestyle choices made as a young adult do increase your risk of developing cancer, particularly the use of tobacco, but also your diet, the amount of physical activity you get, and your exposure to the sun. About one-quarter of those surveyed seem to be denying this reality — they agreed with the myth that a person's early lifestyle choices have little impact on their chances of getting cancer later in life.

Most cases of cancer are the consequence of many years of exposure to several risk factors. What you eat, whether you are physically active, whether you get sunburned regularly, and especially, whether you smoke as a young person have a substantial influence on whether you develop cancer later in life.

More than two-thirds of all fatal cancer cases can be prevented with simple lifestyle changes:

  • Eating lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grains
  • Exercising
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Using protection against the sun
  • And especially, not smoking

Tobacco and Teens: Making the Right Choice

The decisions young people make about using tobacco will have the most profound impact on their chances of developing cancer later in life. Smoking causes 30 percent of all cancer deaths and about 440,000 premature deaths annually.

About 90 percent of the time kids try tobacco for the first time before finishing high school, and the highly addictive qualities of nicotine keep them smoking for decades. But if people can get through their teen years without smoking or chewing tobacco, they most likely will never start.

Research also shows the younger you begin to smoke, the more likely you are to be an adult smoker. People who begin to smoke at an earlier age are more likely to develop long-term nicotine addiction than those who start their habit later.

Teen smoking rates have been dropping in recent years, from a peak of 36 percent in 1997, thanks to increases in school-based efforts to prevent tobacco use, large anti-tobacco ad campaigns aimed at young people, indoor smoking restrictions, and rising prices and taxes for cigarettes. Where states have increased tobacco taxes and instituted anti-tobacco education programs, fewer teens have started smoking.

What You Do As a Teen Can Come Back to Haunt You

Whether it is smoking cigarettes or not using protection against the sun, habits developed as a teen can lead to cancer as an adult. The effects of these harmful habits don't disappear as years pass, but can be diminished by living a healthy life as you grow older.

Research continues to pinpoint the more effective ways to quit smoking. The American Cancer Society publication Kicking Butts provides the latest information about smoking cessation.