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
Timothy Moynihan, M.D.

Timothy Moynihan, M.D.

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 J. Moynihan, M.D., a cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, 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 cured 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. Doctors often go into cancer research because they have a family member or friend affected by the disease.

Doctors are as interested in finding a cure as anyone else, for 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 the 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, lung, colon and rectum.

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 lot 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.

Myth: Cancer is always painful

Truth: Some cancers never cause pain.

For people who do experience cancer pain, especially people with advanced cancer, doctors have become more aware of the need to control such pain and have learned better ways to manage it. Although all pain may not be eliminated, it may be controlled so that it has little impact on your daily routine.

Myth: A needle biopsy can disturb cancer cells, causing them to travel to other parts of the body

Truth: For most types of cancer, there's no conclusive evidence that a needle biopsy — a procedure used to diagnose many types of cancer — causes cancer cells to spread.

There are exceptions, though, of which doctors and surgeons are aware. For instance, a needle biopsy usually isn't used in diagnosing testicular cancer. Instead, if a doctor suspects testicular cancer, the testicle is removed.

Myth: Surgery causes cancer to spread

Truth: Surgery can't cause cancer to spread. Don't delay or refuse treatment because of this myth. Surgically removing cancer is often the first and most important treatment.

Some people may believe this myth because they feel worse during recovery than they did before surgery. And if your surgeon discovers during surgery that your cancer is more advanced than first thought, you may believe the surgery caused more extensive cancer. But there is no evidence to support this.

Myth: Everyone with the same kind of cancer gets the same kind of treatment

Truth: Your doctor tailors your treatment to you. What treatment you receive depends on where your cancer is, whether or how much it has spread, and how it's affecting your body functions and your general health.

More and more, cancer treatment is being tailored based on your genes. These genes, which you're born with, may show that your body processes certain chemotherapy treatments and drugs differently than someone else's body. Genetic testing on your cancer cells can also help guide your treatment.

Myth: Everyone who has cancer has to have treatment

Truth: It's up to you whether you want to treat your cancer. You can decide this after consulting with your doctor and learning about your options.

A person with cancer might choose to forgo treatment if he or she has:

  • A slow-growing cancer. Some people with cancer might not have any signs or symptoms. Lab tests might reveal that the cancer is growing very slowly. These people might choose to wait and watch the cancer. If it suddenly begins growing more quickly, treatment is always an option.
  • Other medical conditions. If you have other significant illnesses, you may choose not to treat your cancer, as the cancer may not be the biggest threat to your health. This may be especially true in the case of a slow-growing cancer.
  • A late-stage cancer. If the burden of treatment side effects outweighs the benefit that treatment can bring, you might choose not to be treated. But that doesn't mean your doctor will abandon you. Your doctor can still provide comfort measures, such as pain relief.
Nov. 03, 2018 See more In-depth

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