Survival rates for many cancers are on the up and knowledge and treatments are improving – yet myths about the disease continue to exist. Dr Emmajane Down, GP, helps lift the lid on common cancer myths.

Myth 1: Cancer is just a health issue 

Whilst there’s no denying that cancer affects health, the truth is that it’s not just a health issue. In reality the disease has social and economic implications too. 

“We know early detection and early treatment improves survival and we need to spend more money educating people to stop smoking, learn to examine themselves and spot the early warning signs of cancer,” says Dr Down. “Cancer detection and treatment is expensive and survival rates are lower in deprived communities, where there may be less education, delays in diagnosis and poorer access to optimal care,” explains Dr Emmajane Down, GP. 

It’s also both a cause and outcome of poverty. Having cancer affects people’s ability to earn a living, and high treatment costs force them further into poverty. 

 

Myth 2: Cancer is a disease of the wealthy, elderly and developed countries

Cancer is a disease that has no boundaries and doesn’t discriminate. It affects people across the world – all ages, and genders, from all economic classes. In fact, countries of low and middle incomes often bear a bigger burden as they struggle to cope with the effects on their population. Less developed areas experience 47 per cent of cancer cases and 55 percent of deaths. These areas need better access to affordable cancer services to help reduce the cancer impact and improve their survival. 

 

Myth 3: Cancer is a death sentence 

A cancer diagnosis is by no means an automatic death sentence. Thanks to improved treatments and knowledge, many more people today are effectively treated and cured.  In fact, according to statistics from Cancer Research UK, survival rates for cancer in the UK have doubled in the last 40 years. In the case of children, nearly three-quarters of children are now cured of their disease, compared to only a quarter during the late 1960s. 

“The highest rates of survival are for testicular cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and malignant melanoma, and we’ve seen the most significant improvements in survival rates with prostate cancer,” says Dr Down. “The UK has a national screening programme to detect common cancers, such as breast cancer and bowel cancer, at earlier stages,” explains Dr Down. “This improves treatment outcomes, as cancer found early can be treated more effectively before it’s had a chance to spread.” 

 

Myth 4: Cancer is my fate 

This is by no means true. In reality, with the right strategies, more than one in three cancers can be prevented. 

Your risk of developing cancer depends on a mix of factors, including age, genetics and lifestyle habits. According to figures from Cancer Research UK, more than 40 percent of all cancers in the UK are linked to lifestyle factors such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption, diet, being overweight or inactive – all of which are aspects in your life that you have the chance to modify if you choose. 

Five of the most important steps you can take to help prevent cancer, says Dr Down, are: 

  • To not smoke. “The most important way to reduce your chance of developing cancer is to stop smoking. Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers and is preventable by not smoking.” 
  • To maintain a healthy body weight. “We know obesity causes an increased risk of all cancer. Eating a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is the best way to reduce your risk.” 
  • To reduce alcohol intake. Heavy alcohol consumption is linked with many cancers. “It’s directly linked with mouth and throat cancer, along with bowel and breast cancer. Reducing your intake to the recommended safe limits will significantly reduce your risk.” 
  • To use sun protection. Avoiding sun exposure reduces skin cancer. 
  • To avoid certain infections. Infections such as Hepatitis C and HPV viruses can lead to cancer. “Cervical cancer can be prevented with the new immunisation against the HPV virus that causes it.” 

“Around 17,000 cases of cancer per year in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese,” say Cancer Research UK. Yet physical activity protects against colon, breast and womb cancer, as well as having good effects on body weight. Not all cancers are yet preventable, but early detection, diagnosis and treatment can save lives. “Educate yourself on what to look out for,” suggests Dr Down. “Examine your skin, breasts and testicles regularly for any changes or lumps and report them to your doctor immediately.” 

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