Six stubborn myths about cancer

There are few illnesses as
terrifying in the public
consciousness as cancer. With up to
a third of us getting cancer at some
stage in our lives, it is almost
impossible to remain untouched by
the disease. As an ominous
reminder of our mortality, cancer
scares us to the point that
discussions about it are often
avoided and the language we use is
couched in euphemisms.
The recent Channel 4 documentary
"You're killing my son" told the
story of Neon Roberts, a young boy
whose treatment for a brain
tumour was halted by his mother
Sally, who remained convinced that
radiotherapy would cause long-
term harm and wanted to try
alternative medical treatments.
After a difficult court battle, Neon
received radiotherapy , leaving his
mother somewhat unimpressed.
"Death by doctor is very common,
but thankfully, because of the
internet these days a number of us
have educated ourselves," she says
in the documentary. "There's so
many other options that we've been
deprived of, denied."
The Neon Roberts case is tragic and
reveals the quagmire of
misinformation that surrounds the
disease, but Ms Roberts's comment
should not be completely dismissed.
Misguided though she might be, her
point that the internet is full of
information about cancer cannot
be denied. Much of it is dubious
and outlandish, but differentiating
between fact and fiction can be
difficult and a host of myths about
cancer have found new life online.
While it would be impossible to
address all the legends on the
subject, it is worth dispelling some
of the more persistent
Cancer rates are rising
This statement is true in one respect
but it is often framed as "proof-
positive" that our world is
becoming more carcinogenic. Age
is the single biggest risk factor
associated with developing cancer
and as we're living longer it's
hardly surprising that rates are
increasing . This merely means we
are now less likely to die of the
host of plagues and injuries that
ravaged generations before us.
What is heartening is that survival
rates have also improved
substantially due to more effective
diagnostic techniques and
Sharks don't get cancer
This factoid has burnt its way into
the public consciousness to such an
extent that nothing short of a
cultural lobotomy can erase it. The
perceived immunity of sharks to
cancer has led to their slaughter to
harvest the allegedly curative
cartilage ; not only is this no good
for sharks, it's no good for humans
Sharks do get cancer – indeed,
pretty much all complex
multicellular organisms do, from
dogs to elephants.
The myth that "sharks don't get
cancer" was popularised in a 1992
book of the same name by Dr
William Lane. It is estimated that
North American shark populations
have shrunk by 80% in the past
decade, with over 200,000 sharks
harvested every month to create a
pill that doesn't work. It will
perhaps come as no surprise to the
cynical reader that Dr Lane has
built business interests in shark
fishing and cartilage pills.
Cancer is a modern disease
Egyptian doctors were recording
cancers of the breast sometime
between 1500 and 3000BC. By
400BC, the Greek physician
Hippocrates (he of the oath) had
distinguished between benign and
malignant tumours. (Incidentally,
the early Greek scientists of this
period called it cancer because they
thought clusters of tumours looked
like crab legs . If this seems a
slightly odd simile, bear in mind
Greek medics were not familiar
with dissection and so could only
observe protruding tumours.)
The reality is that cancer is a truly
ancient disease, and has likely
existed since the dawn of humanity
and before it in the primate species
from which we are descended.
Radiotherapy and
chemotherapy are poisons
In a manner of speaking, yes –
that's the idea. Both radiotherapy
and chemotherapy damage DNA.
Tumour cells are mutants and
while they proliferate far more
than they ought, they are much
more susceptible to damage and
much less likely to be repaired
successfully than surrounding
healthy tissue. As a consequence, a
well-planned radiotherapy dose is
concentrated on areas where
tumours have been located,
preferentially killing tumour cells
and largely sparing healthy tissue
and organs.
Chemotherapy targets cells that
divide rapidly, such as cancer cells.
This can also affect non-tumour
cells that divide rapidly, such as
bone marrow and hair follicles.
The aim of both therapies is to kill
off tumour cells while ideally
sparing non-tumour cells and this
is why they are effective and why
they have side-effects. The "poison"
mantra is often a banner hoisted
by those championing some alleged
alternative treatment with no side
effects, conveniently ignoring the
fact that a cancer treatment
without side effects is unlikely to be
killing any cancer cells.
There is a cure, but big
pharma is suppressing it
The assertion that there is a
"supressed" cure for cancer is a
depressingly common one. A
number of documentaries purport
to investigate alternative cancer
cures, from healing oils to
homeopathy, all allegedly
suppressed by the "cancer industry"
to protect its cash cow.
Cancer is caused by the unregulated
division of mutant cells, which can
invade adjacent tissue or travel
through the body in a process
called metastasis. Because cancer
can arise from practically any type
of cell mutation, there is a huge
range of malignancies – some
respond well to surgery, others to
radiotherapy, and others to
chemotherapy. Some tumours are
too advanced to cure, but can be
treated palliatively with such
The prognosis and survival rates
for different cancers vary hugely –
slow growing, promptly diagnosed
and easily accessed tumours tend to
have a good prognosis. Non-
melanoma skin cancer and breast
cancers, for example, usually have
relatively good prognoses. Others
tumours grow rapidly or present
with clinical symptoms only when
quite advanced, rendering them
harder to treat.
To add to this complexity, one must
also consider that each cancer is
unique to that patient because it
arises from mutations in their own
cells. Consequently, the idea of a
single magic bullet to treat all these
forms with different causes,
pathologies and responses is
extremely far-fetched and should
be treated with scepticism.
So too should conspiracy claims,
such as this gem from the infamous
bastion of misinformation Natural
… the cancer industry world-wide
is estimated at a 200 billion dollar
a year industry. There are many in
various associated positions within
that industry who would be without
a job if that cash flow dried up
suddenly with the news that there
are cheaper, less harmful, and
more efficacious remedies
available. Big Pharmacy would
virtually vanish.
This charge fails even a courtesy
examination. If big pharma did
possess a cure for cancer, then
surely their senior executives and
researchers would never die of the
disease? And a secret like that is
impossible to contain for long, no
matter how unethical the
companies involved.
But the final nail in the outlandish
coffin of this argument is the
dancing in the centre of the room:
if there were an effective cure for
cancer, why on earth would a
pharmaceutical company NOT sell
Cancer can be cured by X
The spectrum of alleged cancer
cures is alarmingly wide, but
typically the product is "natural"
and easily acquired – for example,
apricot seeds , graviola, mistletoe
and even baking soda have been
championed as cancer cures despite
little or no clinical evidence.
Exotic combinations of everything
from herbs to vitamins are sold
and marketed as potential cures,
but there is simply no evidence that
they work. The FDA keeps a list of
known fake cancer treatments in
an attempt to combat such
Others claim that magnets can cure
cancer, but the research into
"magnetic therapy" shows that such
static fields are biologically inert
and this is wishful thinking. It is
also sometimes claimed that
homeopathy can cure cancer –
which is of course nonsense
because homeopathy has been
shown to work no better than
placebo and would have to defy the
known laws of physics and
chemistry to be effective.
While these people may be well-
meaning but misinformed, there
are more dubious outfits such as the
Burzynski clinic, which claims to
have pioneered a new form of
cancer treatment known as
antineoplastons. Yet since its
foundation in 1976, the clinic has
produced no peer-reviewed
evidence that its wares actually
work, and charges patients colossal
amounts of money to undergo
clinical trials, which is an ethically
questionable practice. Critics of the
clinic have been subjected to
threats of litigation.
Stanislaw Burzynski, its founder,
has been sued by former patients
for defrauding them . Despite this,
he is often framed as a hero being
suppressed by "big pharma", tying
neatly into the conspiracy fallacy
and ignoring the fact that such
organisations make substantial
profit from very ill people without
offering any verified treatment.
To quote the late, great Patrick
Swayze, who died of pancreatic
cancer in 2009: "If anybody had
that cure out there like so many
people swear to me they do, you'd
be two things: you'd be very rich,
and you'd be very famous.
Otherwise, shut up."
Cancer is scary, but it should not
be forgotten that treatment options
and outcomes have never been
better and continue to improve. As
the Neon Roberts case
demonstrates aptly,
misinformation can cause serious
and potentially tragic problems. It
is natural for people to have
concerns and questions, and a talk
with one's physician, nurse or
healthcare adviser can do much to
answer these and assuage fears.
While the internet is a potentially
fantastic source for information
(Cancer Research UK has some very
useful patient resources ), great care
must be taken to avoid treating
spurious information as factual.
Carl Sagan's famous dictum that,
"Extraordinary claims require
extraordinary evidence", should
always be kept in mind when
dealing with promises of miracle