Myths and truth about cancer

Anna KomisarenkoNews
Anna Komisarenko, oncologist. Source:

Perhaps no disease is shrouded in as many myths and fears as cancer. Some of them affect the perception of the disease, others prevent a person from managing it in time. And still others simply ruin the lives of anxious people. Let's figure it out: why do people still trust stereotypes and what is really worth being afraid of?

Phobias and how to deal with them

Fear is the oldest and strongest of human feelings, especially the fear of the unknown and, synonymously, the fear of death. That's why we so often encounter a common neurosis - oncophobia (carcinophobia). This is a condition where a person is afraid of cancer to the point of fainting and often unreasonably so! In such cases, we notice how human fantasy literally "paralyzes" the person's volitional decisions. And instead of regularly checking their health, getting comprehensive information from medical professionals, adjusting what needs to be corrected, reconsidering their lifestyle, and working through this phobia with a psychotherapist, the person continues to be afraid.

That is why the first "myth" that emotions can become (perhaps indirectly) the cause of cancer is not a myth at all! Of course, there are situations that are clinically defined as depression. In this case, the functions of motivation and volitional actions due to biochemical changes in the brain are quite different. Of course, carcinophobia will not lead to cancer, but it will cause a person to miss the most valuable moment when they need treatment.

Check-up is the key to success

Remember that in the early stages, cancer is not a death sentence, so regular check-ups (checks according to the schedule of age-related examinations) are mandatory. There are fairly simple and straightforward schemes that are slightly modified if you are at risk. For example:

  • Breast ultrasound (once every six months for women aged 20 to 40);
  • Mammography (once every two years for women over 40 years old and once a year for women over 50 years old);
  • Examination by a gynecologist with cytological control (for every woman after the age of 18, once a year);
  • Colonoscopy (once every 5 years, after 45 years), etc.

The emotional sphere also includes the stress in which we live. Short-term stress is beneficial for humans (it helps to mobilize the body's resources to adapt to new things). It is associated with learning processes, assimilation of new information and skills. When the adaptation process is complete, stress disappears. Long-term stress, or distress, is a slow killer of the body. Due to the constant action of stress hormones, the body is constantly on high "combat alert," i.e., it works at "high speed." Immunity is the first to collapse, which prevents the development of cancer.

The second myth that we often hear at the reception is that there is a kind of "psychological pill for cancer". This thesis is spread by supporters of psychosomatics, who believe that the wrong attitude to life, character traits and personal grievances against others can cause cancer. In their understanding, the chain is as follows: you lived wrong and thought wrong; once you understand, realize, and start doing the right thing, cancer will go away. This perception of the disease reflects the so-called "magical thinking," which means that you can change your physical body with the power of thought. In our practice, it is not uncommon for a patient to disappear after quitting treatment (or not starting it), in pursuit of the promises of a guru of meditation, transformation, and something otherworldly. Is it possible to heal bone fractures with the power of thought? Why does this not occur to anyone? The answer is obvious: cancer still causes fear. Although the progress in the treatment of cancer is enormous! Indeed, cancer treatment is complex and lengthy. In some cases, it is impossible to help a patient recover. But scientifically proven and clinically validated treatment protocols save about 5 times more lives than any alternative methods.

As a case of a rash choice of attitude towards treatment, I will give an example of Steve Jobs' treatment for pancreatic cancer. Despite the severity of this diagnosis, effective treatment was possible in his case. However, he decided otherwise, essentially denying the problem, completely changing his life, traveling to a tropical island where he spent 9 months in meditation and strict fasting. However, the disease progressed, and after his return, it was possible to stop the development of metastasis for a very short time... It is known that he was very sorry for his decision.

And the third myth I would like to talk about: "My grandfather drank and smoked and lived to be a hundred years old!" This, in my opinion, is the biggest mistake that each of you can make. There is a lot of information in open sources about the causes of cancer. An elementary analysis shows that most of the risk factors are caused by a person's lifestyle, not their genetic component.

Components of proper prevention and treatment

In other words, healthy food, sleep, regular physical activity, and avoiding bad habits are the best cancer prevention. Interesting figures: in 2020, Ukrainian citizens spent almost 14 billion hryvnias on medicines that are not provided for by modern treatment standards - without proven or questionable effectiveness. These medicines accounted for more than a quarter of the money people spend on medicines in general. Of course, I understand that there are drugs that are classified as dietary supplements because clinical trials take a long time, or the State Control Commission has questions about their trial design. Therefore, I suggest that you be careful about what you take and consult a medical professional about their appropriateness. Numerous studies have not found any protection against cancer when consuming "vitamins," and in some cases, such as with beta-carotene, the risk of the disease may even increase. Instead, there are plenty of foods with pronounced antioxidant properties that could become the basis of your diet and help you be healthier.

As for bad habits, alcoholic beverages can contain at least 15 carcinogenic compounds, including acetaldehyde, acrylamide, aflatoxins, arsenic, benzene, cadmium, ethanol, formaldehyde, and even lead. Acetaldehyde is the most toxic product of alcohol metabolism. Last year, more than 4% of cancer cases in the world were associated with alcohol consumption. This is evidenced by the results of a study published in the scientific journal The Lancet. The bad news is that, in my opinion, there is no safe dose.

Tobacco smoking is the most important risk factor for cancer and is responsible for approximately 25% of cancer deaths! Tobacco contains nicotine, which is recognized by international medical organizations as a substance that causes drug dependence. But in addition to nicotine, the combustion process releases more than 6,000 carcinogenic substances in tobacco tar. And it is they (and not nicotine) that primarily concern me as a doctor.

And this is a real stumbling block for oncologists! For example, a decrease in smoking frequency among the population of some developed countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, has already led to a decrease in morbidity and mortality from lung cancer and other forms of cancer etiologically related to smoking. How did they achieve these results? They have stopped demonizing nicotine and advised smokeless alternatives for adult smokers, where the combustion process is eliminated. In many cases, this has accelerated cigarette smoking cessation. Here's a quote from a letter written to the World Health Organization (WHO) by 53 prominent public health advocates in 2014: "The potential of tobacco harm reduction products to reduce the burden of smoking-related disease is very high, and these products could be among the greatest health innovations of the 21st century, possibly saving hundreds of millions of lives."

Try to minimize the risks first, and then eliminate them altogether, so that you don't live in fear of getting cancer, but enjoy your life!

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