Cancer treatment myths: Any truth to these common beliefs?

Misconceptions about cancer treatment might make you feel confused or unsure when choosing a treatment. Learn the truth so that you can feel more comfortable with your cancer treatment. By Mayo Clinic Staff

As advances in the treatment of cancer have increased, you may have discovered more opportunities to learn the facts about this disease. Yet some misleading ideas about cancer treatment still persist. Timothy Moynihan, M.D., a cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., helps debunk some of the most common misconceptions about cancer treatment and explains the truth.

Myth: A positive attitude is all you need to beat cancer.

Truth: There's no scientific proof that a positive attitude gives you an advantage in cancer treatment or improves your chance of being cured.

What a positive attitude can do is improve the quality of your life during cancer treatment and beyond. You may be more likely to stay active, maintain ties to family and friends, and continue social activities. In turn, this may enhance your feeling of well-being and help you find the strength to deal with your cancer.

Myth: If we can put a man on the moon, we should have a cure for cancer by now.

Truth: Finding the cure for cancer is proving to be more complex than mastering the engineering and physics required for spaceflight.

Cancer actually includes a large group of diseases. Each can have many different causes. Despite advances in diagnosis and treatment, doctors still have much to learn about what triggers a cell to become cancerous and why some people with cancer do better than others.

In addition, cancer is a moving target. Cancer cells may continue to mutate and change during the course of the disease. This may lead to the cancer cells no longer responding to the chemotherapy drugs or radiation treatments that were given initially.

Myth: Drug companies and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are blocking or withholding new cancer treatments.

Truth: Your doctor and the FDA, which must approve new drugs before they can be marketed, are your allies. As such, they make your safety a high priority. Unfortunately, scientific studies to determine the safety and effectiveness of new cancer treatments take time. That may create the appearance or lead to reports that effective new treatments are being blocked.

If you still believe a cure is being purposefully withheld, ask yourself why a doctor would choose to specialize in cancer research. Oftentimes doctors go into cancer research because they have a family member or friend affected by the disease. They're just as interested in finding a cure as anyone else, for exactly the same reason — it affects them personally. They hate to see a loved one in pain and don't wish to lose this person. They also want to spare others what they have gone through.

Myth: Regular checkups and today's medical technology can detect all cancer early.

Truth: Although regular medical care can indeed increase your ability to detect cancer early, it can't guarantee it. Cancer is a complicated disease, and there's no sure way to always spot it.

Routine screening has been linked to a decrease in deaths from cancers of the cervix, breast and colon.

Myth: Undergoing cancer treatment means you can't live at home, work or go about your usual activities.

Truth: Most people with cancer are treated on an outpatient basis in their home communities.

At times it may be helpful to travel to a specialty medical center for treatment. But often, doctors at such a medical center can work with doctors in your hometown, so that you can be with your family and friends and perhaps even resume work.

A great deal of research has gone into making it easier for people to live more normal lives during their cancer treatment. For example, drugs are now available to help better control nausea. The result is you're often able to work and stay active during your treatment.

May. 12, 2011 See more In-depth