For Dr. Marcus Tan, assistant professor of surgery at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine and a surgical oncologist at the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute, spreading public awareness of cancer and demystifying the disease is one of the most important things he does.
“A cancer diagnosis is a totally foreign experience that is both frightening and confusing for most people,” he said. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there that can increase confusion.”
By addressing and debunking the following common cancer myths, Dr. Tan hopes to reduce some of the anxiety, confusion and fear associated with being diagnosed with cancer.
Myth #1: Exposure of cancer to air makes it spread.
Reality: We avoid futile operations through screening, improved imaging and laparoscopy.
According to Dr. Tan, patients often fear that undergoing an operation that exposes internal contents to the atmosphere will make the cancer spread. This myth originates from the frequent futile operations in the 1940s-70s. Patients – often from rural communities – would be diagnosed with large, long-neglected tumors and sent into urban hospitals for surgery. Their family would then hear back weeks (sometimes months) later that things had not gone well and the cancer was much more advanced than previously thought and had spread even more. The blame for this poor outcome was partly attributed to the operation.
“Today, we have screening programs that allow cancers to be found when they are smaller – sometimes even before they become invasive; and new technologies (better imaging, minimally-invasive surgery) that allow us to non-invasively gauge the extent of spread of cancer,” Dr. Tan said. “This minimizes the number of unnecessary operations and large incisions.”
Myth #2: Surgical manipulation of cancer makes it spread.
Reality: Myth is not supported by data.
Many people think that biopsies can cause cancer to spread. However, Dr. Tan said the risk is very low – about 3 percent of biopsies for liver cancer.
“Given the small risk, we do try to avoid biopsy when imaging and blood tests can provide a diagnosis,” he said.
It’s also a common myth that cancer cells can spread when the surgeon handles the tumor during an operation. However, data shows that routine handling of colon tumors during the operation doesn’t appear to make the patient have a worse outcome.
Myth #3: Cancer is cancer; it’s all treated the same.
Reality: Cancers are very different. Our ability to individualize patient treatment remains limited, but is improving rapidly.
Dr. Tan said the origin of this myth came from limited diagnostics and treatments, as well as limited knowledge of different cancers. Since then, there has been an explosion of knowledge of cancer biology and genetics.
“We’ve known for a long time that everyone’s cancer is different,” Dr. Tan said. “Our end-goal is to be able to identify these differences at a genetic level and adjust our treatment accordingly. Our increasing understanding of cancers both at a whole-person level as well as at a genetic level will continue to improve our ability to diagnose and treat cancer at an individual level.”
Myth #4: You can find a miracle cure on the Internet.
Reality: Miracles do happen.
“We rely on those miracles to happen,” Dr. Tan said. “The challenge is to understand the biological interaction of the cancer, the person and the treatment that produced this ‘miracle.’ This is the goal of personalized medicine – we have clinicians and scientists working to determine how to individualize treatment for each person that has cancer.”
Myth #5: If you live healthily, you won’t get cancer.
Reality: Healthy living may decrease your risk of cancer.
Although healthy living may decrease your risk of cancer, it does not prevent it completely. Similarily, living an unhealthy lifestyle does not mean you will get cancer. “It’s not a simple concept – an individual risk of cancer is a complex interplay between genetics, personal choices, and the environment,” Dr. Tan said.
Myth #6: We can defeat cancer by 2015.
Reality: Progress has been made on the war on cancer.
In 2003, Andrew von Eschenbach, then director of the National Cancer Institute, issued a challenge “to eliminate the suffering and death from cancer, and to do so by 2015.”
“I don’t think we’re going to get there in 2015, unfortunately,” Dr. Tan said. “However, much progress has been made. For many years, death from cancer in both males and females stayed the same. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that we’re seeing a slow decline in cancer deaths.”
Dr. Tan recently presented the January Med School Café lecture, “Surgery for Cancer: Myths and Modern Approaches.” To view the lecture in its entirety, click here.