Friday 19 January 2018

15 myths about cancer

It's easy to believe everything you hear about something as scary as cancer, so we spoke to the Irish Cancer Society to debunk some of the most common myths surrounding the disease

Those living with cancer or caring for a loved one are often bombarded with misinformation from well-meaning family and friends because like other diseases with no known cure
Those living with cancer or caring for a loved one are often bombarded with misinformation from well-meaning family and friends because like other diseases with no known cure
Tight underwear as modelled by David Beckham does not cause testicular cancer.
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

There's no doubt about it, cancer is frightening. As advancements are made we know more and more about the disease, but it's still something that's shrouded in mystery. Those living with cancer or caring for a loved one are often bombarded with misinformation from well-meaning family and friends because like other diseases with no known cure, a lot of hyperbole surrounds cancer.

All of these myths can add up to something very frightening, and also dangerous because they can even put those who should be tested and treated off going to visit the doctor. That's why it's important to sort the fact from the fiction. With the help of the Irish Cancer Society, here are 15 common cancer myths busted along with some helpful advice for good measure.

1 Superfoods can't prevent cancer

Think that mainlining kale is going to make up for poor eating habits? Think again. While superfoods are beneficial to your overall diet, there's no scientific basis to the claim that by eating them, you can reduce your risk of cancer. According to the Irish Cancer Society (ICS), eating a healthy and balanced diet and limiting your intake of red and processed meat and salt can significantly reduce your risk, as well as cutting down on foods high in calories, fat and sugar. It's actually more about making healthy choices overall than hoping the saintly ones will make up for any excesses. The Irish Cancer Society recommends following the European Code Against Cancer, which states the benefits of maintaining a healthy body weight and being physically active in reducing the risk of cancer.

2 Cancer screenings aren't just for women

You might think that only women are tested for breast and cervical cancer, but that isn't the case. BowelScreen is the national screening programme which offers free bowel screening to both men and women aged 60 to 69 every two years. It's a simple home test (called a FIT - faecal immunochemical test) that looks for tiny amounts of blood, which are not visible to the eye, in your stool. If you are aged within this age group and living in Ireland, you can ring BowelScreen on Freephone 1800 45 45 55 to check your details are on the register.

3… and cancer is not just a woman's problem

We do hear a lot about women's cancers because they're widely screened, and breast cancer is the most common cancer in Irish women. But more men die from the cancers that affect both men and women, like bowel, lung and melanoma skin cancer, according to the ICS. That means men need to be just as vigilant when it comes to getting anything suspicious checked out by their GP.

4 Men can get breast cancer

Around 20 cases of male breast cancer are diagnosed in Ireland each year, which is only about 1pc of all cases. However, it still happens. A painless lump is the most common first symptom, so if you or a family member have one, please get it checked out. Better safe than sorry, right?

5 Not everyone who has cancer gets the same kind of treatment

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, the first thing they might imagine is going through the same difficult treatment that friends and loved ones experienced. However, the Irish Cancer Society say that nowadays, the doctor will tailor the treatment to the patient depending on their individual diagnosis. The move towards more personalised medicine has resulted in improved outcomes for cancer patients.

6 Cancer is not caused by knocks and bumps

A lot of people seem to think that bruises, cuts, bumps and broken bones cause cancer, but it's not true. Sometimes an injury can heighten your awareness of certain areas of the body, making you conscious of a swelling or lump that was already there or a symptom you already had. A person may suffer an injury, see a doctor and coincidentally discover another health problem. The best thing to do is get a full health check every year, because the earlier cancer is caught, the better.

7 Tight underwear does not cause testicular cancer

Another rumour that abounds is that wearing restrictive boxers or briefs can increase your risk of testicular cancer, but it's just not true. According to the ICS, there's just no evidence to support this theory, and other old wives' tales about masturbation causing cancer of the male organs is also false.

8… and neither do underwired bras

Some have suggested that the underwire in a bra can obstruct lymph flow and cause a toxin build-up, but this is a myth according to the ICS, and there's no clinical basis for the claim. It doesn't matter what type of underwear you wear when it comes to cancer risk, so stick with whatever you feel comfortable in.

9 False tan and deodorant don't cause it either

Anti-perspirant has been getting a bad name recently, with rumours suggesting that the chemicals are absorbed through the skin and interfere with the lymphatic system. The ICS says there's no evidence to support this, and that chemicals in anti-perspirants are tested systematically to ensure their safety. The same goes for self-tan - they're made predominantly from sugar molecules that react with the surface of the skin and causes colouring of the surface of it. It might smell strong and have a very visible reaction, but it's not harmful when it comes to cancer risk.

10 But drinking alcohol can increase your risk of developing cancer

Most people know that heavy alcohol use can cause health problems, but you may not be aware that alcohol is a known cause of seven types of cancer, according to the ICS. It's true that you can reduce your chance of getting cancer if you avoid alcohol or only drink a little; even a small amount increases your risk. It's not just alcoholics or people with a severe drinking problem that are affected. It's as simple as the more you drink, the higher your risk. The ICS now know that drinking alcohol increases your risk of cancer of the mouth, larynx, throat, oesophagus, breast, liver and bowel. Alcohol may also increase the risk of pancreatic cancer.

11 You must always protect your skin from the elements

Many of us only apply SPF when the sun is beating down, but it's not just in warm weather that you should look after your skin. Sun damage increases the risk of malignant melanoma, and up to 90pc of powerful UV rays can get through light clouds, so even on cloudy Irish days you need to use some form of protection. The ICS recommends covering up with an SPF cream and also with clothing from April to September. Buying a moisturiser and make-up containing sun protection factor is an easy way to make sure your face is well looked after, as it's often the most exposed area of the body.

12 Biopsies don't cause cancers to spread

Some people mistakenly feel that having a biopsy performed can inflame or irritate cancer, but that's simply not the case. The ICS says a biopsy has no impact on a person's cancer, and is an important tool in not only diagnosing cancer in the first place, but also in being able to tell what stage the cancer is at. Don't be afraid of having a biopsy; early detection of cancerous cells is so important.

13 It is possible to quit smoking for ever

Smoking is linked to one in three cancers in Ireland, and the best thing you can do in order to reduce your risk is to quit right away. The ICS says smoking can take 10-15 years off your life. It's not always easy to give up, but there are resources available at and you can call the quitline on 1850 201 203.

14 Everyone must be vigilant about their health

A lot of people think that once they get to a certain stage in their life, cancer isn't really an issue. This is not true. You might hear more stories about children or young people with cancer, but it is more common in older people. You can get cancer at any stage in life but most cancer happens in those over 50 and beyond, so it's important to stay pro-active about your health as you get older.

15 We ARE making progress in the fight against cancer

Because we still lose many people to the deadly disease each and every year, it's easy to believe that we're still clueless about it, but that's not the case. The ICS says that research has improved knowledge about cancer biology, early detection, diagnosis and treatment, and has deepened understanding of the kinds of supportive care which enhance quality of life and advance survivorship. Thanks to these advances, more people are now living with cancer in Ireland, with survival rates improving all the time.

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