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Debunking myths about cancer

The Washington Post

June 10, 2022

Marlene Cimons

Debunking myths about cancer

For someone recently diagnosed with cancer, or just terrified of getting the disease, the world — especially social media — is full of scientifically inaccurate information about how to avoid it, how to treat it and what to fear about it.

Yet to the frustration of many cancer doctors, these outdated myths — such as whether, absent scientific evidence, you should eat or avoid certain foods, take herbs or other supplements, or skip therapy in favor of a “naturalistic” approach — continue to appeal to many patients, harming how they cope with a cancer diagnosis and putting their treatment at risk.

“When something triggers emotions, it can be hard to get logic and reason through because cancer is scary, especially for people who have never seen it, or for people who have watched family members who have had it,” says Rachel Buchsbaum, director of the cancer center and chief of hematology/oncology at Tufts Medical Center. “It’s hard to get the message across that today’s treatments and technologies are a lot better than they used to be. The fear of cancer is still so pervasive, that they often continue to hang with the emotion.”

Research suggests that despite steady decreases in cancer mortality rates in recent years, most Americans still see cancer as a death sentence, a perception that is not only false but also dangerous if it leads people to forgo prevention, early detection and treatment, experts say. More than 16.9 million Americans who had invasive cancer years ago still were alive as of Jan. 1, 2019 — the most recent year statistics were available — with no signs of disease, according to the American Cancer Society. By Jan. 1, 2030, an estimated 22.1 million or more Americans will be cancer survivors, the ACS says.

“Cancer care, including the emotional and psychological stress surrounding a diagnosis, the sense of uncertainty that results, as well as the complexities of treatment decisions, make patients vulnerable to harm caused by misinformation,” says Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, a program director in the health communication and informatics research branch of the National Cancer Institute’s Behavioral Research Program. “We all want good information, but the information environment sometimes turns us in other directions.”