The WHO reported around 18.1 million worldwide cases of cancer in 2018 with the death rate at 50%. A similar statistic was also seen in India that year and is due to the late detection hence, diagnosis of cancer. Unbalanced distribution of resources between rural and urban areas, socio-economic factors, gender bias, unnecessary propagation of cancer myths and misconceptions etc. further augment the inequities in cancer diagnosis and treatment.
MedPiper Technologies and JournoMed in association with MGM Healthcare– Varam and Rotary Club, Trichy, Thamizachi had conducted a webinar titled “Breaking Down Myths and Misconceptions Around Cancer Care” on 20th February, 2022 where the speaker Dr. Sivakumar Mahalingam debunked some of these myths and clarified them. Dr. Sivakumar Mahalingam completed his training in Surgical Oncology from Cancer Institute, Adyar and is currently the Senior Consultant at the Department of Surgical Oncology at MGM Healthcare, Chennai.
The word ‘cancer’ incites a lot of fear in people and is often considered a death sentence. This fear coupled with the overall lack of awareness promotes the spread of misinformation regarding cancers. People tend to ignore the early signs and avoid going to the doctor. By the time they meet the specialist, their cancers have progressed to the final stage making treatment more extensive and may even reduce the chances of survival.
Dr. Sivakumar explained the various facets of cancer and how it manifests in the human body through addressing some common myths related to the disorder.
Myth 1: Cancer is not a disease, it is a fungal infection
Dr. Sivakumar says that the patients go on Google and explore their symptoms. Sometimes the sites will offer a lot of incorrect information such as ‘cancer is caused by a vitamin-17 deficiency’ or ‘there is a single cancer drug that cures all cancers’. The speaker calls this phenomenon ‘Google-itis’ and he implores the patients to “not confuse a global search engine with a doctor’s expertise.”
Cancer is simply the uncontrolled proliferation of cells that deviate from the normal cell division process. This cancer grows as a malignant tumour and invades surrounding tissues.
Myth 2: Cancer always causes pain
During the initial stages, cancers are usually painless. Dr. Sivakumar gave a list of warning signs of cancer and if a patient observes any of these signs, they must immediately visit their doctor and get it investigated. The list includes:
- Persistent cough with blood-tinged saliva
- Change in bowel or urination habits with blood in the stool or urine
- Throat soreness accompanied by hoarseness and difficulty in swallowing
- Mouth ulcers that take a long time to heal
- Back pain, bloating, indigestion and pelvic pain due to a stomach ulcer (H. pylori causes stomach ulcers which can progress to stomach cancer)
- Unexplained and prolonged incidence of anaemia
- Painless lumps in the breast, nipple discharge or any random mass in the armpits
- Lumps in the testicles and/or blood-tinged discharge in the genital area
- Unexpected weight loss
- Non healing sores (possibly due to a diabetic foot) or warts (due to prolonged exposure to UV-rays which can progress to melanoma)
Myth 3: Cancer only affects older men
Any type of cancer can affect various demographic groups regardless of gender, caste, creed, age, religion, socioeconomic status.
Myth 4: Cancer is caused due to a vitamin deficiency.
Almost 90-95% of the cancers are caused by environmental factors and the remaining 5-10% have hereditary roots. 70% of cancers are caused by modifiable environmental factors and lifestyle habits such as increased intake of ultra processed foods, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, UV exposure, and alcohol consumption. The remaining 30% of cancers are due to non-modifiable factors such as infections, workplace exposure (asbestos exposure leads to lung cancer) and genetic factors.
A human papillomavirus (HPV) or a Hepatitis B Virus infection can give rise to cervical cancer and liver cancer respectively. These microorganisms can either trigger certain tumour pathways or suppress the tumour suppressor genes to give rise to cancer. The viruses may also leave behind remnants that can activate autoimmune or cancer pathways through molecular mimicry. These infections can be prevented by taking the appropriate vaccines.
Myth 5: Organic foods offer protection from cancers
On the contrary, organic foods may have extra preservatives and fertilisers which in turn triggers cancer. Locally sourced produce like fruits, leafy vegetables and rainbow vegetables have several anti-cancer properties.
Myth 6: Radiation from cell phones can cause cancer
Cell phones produce non-ionising radiation which are incapable of causing cancer. While there is no conclusive study that proves it can cause cancer, cell phone exposure does give rise to other chronic issues such as sleep disorders, stress, infertility, low bone density etc.
Myth 7: Genetic cancers or cancers in general cannot be cured
Cancers are not only curable but also preventable when detected early on. There are many screening techniques such as mammograms for breast cancer, colonoscopy for colorectal cancer and CT scan for lung cancer which help to catch the tumours at the earliest. With regard to treatment, scientists are coming up with various non-invasive and safe alternatives such as immunotherapy, nanoparticle-mediated therapy, plant-based therapy, targeted therapy and gene therapy.
Myth 8: Cancer surgeries and biopsies causes the cancer to spread
Biopsy is a tissue examination technique that determines the type and stage of cancer. Surgeries, conversely, are done to remove the malignant tumours that in turn helps with better management of the cancer.
Various months of the year have been dedicated to various types of cancer in order to raise awareness. This awareness helps to nullify the misinformation surrounding cancer and will also encourage people to go to the specialists to investigate any of the warning signs. The early detection and timely treatment of cancer can help reduce the cancer inequity.