Top 5 Cancer Myths Busted!

By Nuna Alberts
Reviewed by John D. Hainsworth, MD, and Roy Weiner, MD

So many rumors surround cancer treatment—what really works, what doesn’t—that making a decision can be confusing and upsetting. Read on to find out why several of the most persistent myths about the disease are dead wrong.

Myth 1:
A positive attitude is required to beat cancer.
This myth may cause you to fear that feeling upset or overwhelmed will jeopardize your chances of being cured. “Yet it’s perfectly normal for you to experience a range of negative emotions, including sadness, grief, frustration and anxiety, while going through treatment,” says Wendy G. Lichtenthal, PhD, an assistant attending psychologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “The expectation that you should be upbeat despite these feelings only leads to feelings of guilt and disappointment. On the other hand, accepting your distress in a difficult situation can help you adapt and rise to the challenge.”

So give yourself permission to feel what you’re feeling and focus on finding the best treatment. However, if you continue to feel sad and lose interest in activities you usually enjoy, see your healthcare provider. You could be suffering from depression.

Myth 2:
Getting chemo will only make me sicker.
Keep in mind, chemotherapy may be your single best weapon against cancer. Fortunately, the side effects are milder than ever. Recent research has led to greater accuracy in prescribing chemo, which has reduced the frequency and intensity of side effects. How you’ll feel after treatment depends on several factors, including your type of chemotherapy and cancer. Keep in mind, everyone reacts to chemotherapy differently. Some experience side effects that are merely annoying; others have extreme discomfort or, in some cases, develop a potentially life-threatening complication, such as a very low white blood count. 

There’s more good news: There are plenty of treatments for controlling side effects. For example, it’s much less common for patients to have significant vomiting these days, compared to 15 to 20 years ago. “Oncologists don’t wait to find out if someone is going to become nauseated from chemo,” says Robert S. Miller, MD, assistant professor of oncology at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center at Green Station in Lutherville, MD. “In most cases, they automatically prescribe antinausea medications prior to and sometimes after treatment, since it’s more effective to prevent nausea than to treat it.”

Myth 3:
Undergoing cancer treatment means you can’t live at home, work or go about your usual activities.
While you may need some extra shut-eye, it’s reasonable to expect that you can continue your usual activities. “Most patients are treated on an outpatient basis,” says Dr. Miller. “Only a few cancers and treatments require hospitalization. Many patients receiving even rigorous chemotherapy regimens work full-time during their treatment and hit the gym regularly. “In fact, exercise is a good way to feel less tired,” he says.

Myth 4:
Supplements and herbs can cure me.
“Patients often think alternative treatments are nontoxic and safe, which may or may not be true,” says Dr. Miller. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require that supplements be tested for effectiveness and safety before they’re sold. By contrast, standard medical interventions, such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, have undergone rigorous testing over a long period of time.

Speak up if you want to include an alternative therapy in your treatment plan. That way, your doctor can review your prescriptions to ensure there are no potential conflicts. “Some herbs and supplements can make standard cancer treatments less effective,” explains Dr. Miller.

Myth 5:
A needle biopsy can disturb cancer cells, causing them to travel to other parts of the body.
Needle biopsies are used to remove a sample of tissue from a suspicious area so it can be examined microscopically to determine whether it’s cancer or a benign tumor, a cyst, an infection or another condition. In nearly all cases, the risk of a needle biopsy causing cells to spread is minuscule compared to the risk of not being correctly diagnosed. If you delay or refuse treatment because of this fear, you may be harming yourself by passing up early treatment, which typically results in the best outcome.

Published March 2014

  Overview

What Is Chemo?
Common Cancer Names
Understanding Cancerspeak
Clinical Trials: Are They Right for You?

More Chemo Basics

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Top 10 Chemo Questions Answered
Top 5 Cancer Myths Busted!
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