Debunking cancer myths

The battle against cancer won’t be won with treatment alone. Effective prevention measures are urgently needed to prevent the ongoing cancer crisis. 

WHO statistics show that cancer claimed more than 8.2 million lives in 2012; ranking it as one of the leading causes of death. Cancer cases are expected to rise from 14 million in 2012 to 22 million within the next two decades. 

The deadliest forms of cancer include lung, liver, stomach, colorectal and breast cancers. About one third of all cancer cases can be prevented through improving one’s diet, exercise, and lifestyle factors while reducing tobacco, alcohol and sugar use. 

Cancer myth 1 – Cancer is just a health issue 

Cancer is not only a serious medical condition but it also has wide-reaching social, familial, economic and discriminatory implications. It is known to affect all ages and socio-economic groups. 

The diagnosis coincidently is a cause and an outcome of poverty. Cancer commonly affects an individual’s ability to earn an ongoing income but its treatment can cause complete financial ruin as well.   

Cancer is skyrocketing in developing areas as they lack access to education, prevention techniques and health care access. The rapid urbanization undermines national and international health resources and leaves people dying from the disease. 


If the current trends continue, cancer is expected to increase by more than 70% in developing countries.   

Cancer myth 2 – Cancer is a death sentence 

Cancers that were once thought to carry a death sentence are now being cured and most importantly prevented through advances in lifestyle education, awareness and prevention programmes. The new treatment is actually prevention.  

Improved education and access to preventative care is bringing improved cancer outcomes to patients. A prime example is cervical cancer rates. Access to pap testing and awareness has lowered cervical cancer mortality by half between 1990 and 2010 in the UK.  

Cancer myth 3 – Cancer is my fate 

According to the World Cancer Research Fund, no more than 10% of cancers are due to inherited genes. Additionally, one third of the most common cancers can be prevented through lifestyle factors.  

One’s lifestyle will play an exclusive role in one’s overall health, energy and vitality. Lifestyle can be the difference between developing cancer at age 40 or 70. The difference is an improved quality of life.  

The WHO’s World Cancer Report 2014 advises a diet packed with vegetables, fruit, and whole grains; cutting down on alcohol and red meat; and eliminating processed meat completely. 

Chronic infections from hepatitis B, C and some types of sexually transmitted human papilloma virus (HPV) are leading risk factors for cancer in the region. Cervical cancer, caused by HPV, is a leading cause of cancer death among women.  

A PAP test and visual inspection by a qualified healthcare professional are effective ways to screen asymptomatic individuals. Early screening and diagnosis programmes are particularly important in low-resource settings where the majority of patients are diagnosed in very late stages. 

Don’t wait until it’s too late – prevention and early detection saves lives. Maintain a healthy weight, eat well, cut out sugar, keep active, limit alcohol and do not smoke.  

Dr Cory Couillard is an international health columnist that works in collaboration with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and control. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.

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