Anyone who follows the cantankerous feathered dinosaur knows that we tend to focus on vaccines, where the anti-vaccine religion focuses on tropes, pseudoscience, misinformation, and outright lies. Cancer myths seem to steal from the anti-vaccine playbook by pushing similar tropes, pseudoscience, misinformation, and lies.
I keep responding to these cancer myths all across the internet, so I thought that it might be useful to list out my favorite ones. No, it would take 50,000 words to debunk all of these cancer myths. For example, the Burzynski Clinic quackery is best handled by a real cancer specialist, David Gorski, MD, who has written well over 100 articles critiquing the Burzynski pseudoscience. So I’m going to stick with my personal favorites.
So, let’s take a look at these cancer myths, and I’ll do my best to debunk them.
What is cancer?
Simply, cancer is a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth which can invade or metastasize to other tissues and organs. Although people use tumor and cancer interchangeably, not all tumors are cancers. There are benign tumors that do not metastasize and are not cancers.
Cancer usually requires numerous, possibly up to 10, independent genetic mutations in a population of cells before it can become a growing, metastatic cancer. Each mutation is selected, as in natural selection, because it provides some benefit to the cancer cell, such as causing blood vessels to supply the cells for nutrition and oxygen, or the ability to divide rapidly, whatever the feature is.
These mutations can have a lot of different causes. The environment (like smoking or UV radiation), viruses (hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are the most common), genes, and just random chance (we’ll discuss more about this cause below) can contribute to an increased risk of cancer.
There are a few things you can do to prevent cancer, such as quitting smoking, staying out of the sun, getting your hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations, not drinking alcohol, keeping a low body weight, and eating a balanced diet. But even if you are a paragon of healthy living, a random mutation in some cell in your body can lead to cancer.
Four paragraphs can hardly do justice to the mountains of published scientific research data related to cancer. PubMed list nearly 4 million (yes, million) articles on cancer. I admit to not reading all 4 million, though I have read a few hundred, especially on HPV and current cancer treatments.
I am a cancer survivor. I utilized science-based medicine to treat and ultimately conquer that cancer And lucky me, there’s been no recurrence after nearly 30 years. I did not turn to fake science like vitamin C or a colon detox – I relied upon the best practices of my oncologist, surgeon, and primary care physician (along with the battalion of nurses, techs, friends, and family).
Cancer myths – all cancers are the same
Cancer is a generic word that covers what I stated above – it’s a cell or group of cells that undergo uncontrolled cellular growth and metastasize into other cells and organs. However, cancer is not one disease.
The National Cancer Institute states that there are over 100 types of cancer. Cancer Research UK states that there are over 200 types of cancer. The American Cancer Society lists over 70 types of cancer (although some are more classes of cancer rather than a single type). Wikipedia lists over 180 different cancers.
Because different cancers are not precisely defined, there is some variance over the actual number. In fact, it’s possible to argue that there are orders of magnitude more cancers because cancer in one person may have different characteristics and cellular mutations than cancer in another.
Nevertheless, each of these cancers has different etiologies (causes), pathophysiologies (development), prognosis, and treatment.
Whenever I read some internet quack claim that there is a cure for cancer, I laugh because I know that they actually don’t understand the nature of cancer. Maybe someday well into the future, we might have some scientific “ah ha” moment, and we find a common link between all cancers, but that seems implausible. It is not one disease.
If I see some internet quack proclaim that they have the sure thing cure for cancer, I laugh until I remember that they’re selling that junk to innocent people who think it might help.
Cancer myths – one cure to cure them all
Because there are literally hundreds of different cancers, it will take literally hundreds of different treatments to treat them all. And the treatment of cancers is not based on wild claims on the internet, it’s based on scientific and clinical evidence, not on anecdotes and pseudoscientific claims.
Again, maybe one day we’ll find some common biological trait between all of the cancers that we can attack to stop cancers. I’m skeptical of ever finding that, but there might be some common attribute between a handful of cancers that might a target of cancer therapy. Cancer vaccines and immunotherapy depend on some commonality between some cancers.
Right now, we rely upon a strategy of surgery (for most cancers) and adjuvant therapies like chemo- and radio-therapy. The success of these therapeutic strategies is dependent upon the evidence published among those 4 million articles published on cancer.
Although there are a few drugs that can be used across a few different cancers, each cancer usually requires a different treatment strategy. In today’s world of cancer treatment, there is no one drug to treat them all.
Of course, many cancer experts are reluctant to use the word “cure.” They prefer words like “remission” or “five-year survival” which may sound like euphemisms but are actually more accurate. It is almost impossible to determine if every single cancer cell has been eliminated, so it’s entirely possible for cancer recurrence arising from just a few cells that survived.
Nevertheless, the one cancer cure to cure them all is probably a mirage that people want to believe exists but from a biological standpoint, it probably doesn’t exist.
Cancer myths – we’re losing the war on cancer
Even though there will probably never be one cure to cure them all, it doesn’t mean that we have been unsuccessful against cancer. In fact, recent research has shown that cancer mortality rates have dropped in men, women, children, and most (but not all) racial and ethnic groups in the USA.
From 1999 through 2015, the last year included in the study, the rate has declined 1.8% annually for American men and 1.4% annually for American women. Furthermore, cancer mortality rates have dropped for 11 of 18 cancer types in men, and 14 of 20 cancer types in women between 2011 and 2015. We are seeing both long-term and short-term declines in cancer mortality rates.
Despite the wild cancer myths, medicine is doing a really good job in defeating cancer. Better and earlier detection of cancer (thanks to science), more effective treatments (thanks to science,) and better long-term care (thanks to science) has led to this remarkable reduction in the mortality rate from cancer.
Many of the 200 or more cancers have been effectively defeated by modern science-based medicine. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of leukemia in children, used to be a death sentence for children. However, as a result of powerful new therapies, the five-year survival for children increased from under 10% in the 1960s to 90% in 2015.
And there are many other remarkable improvements in survival from cancers that used to be hopeless.
Cancer myths – Big Pharma is hiding THE cure
Of course, as we pointed out above, it is ridiculous to believe that there is one cure for all 200 or more different cancers. It’s unscientific and stretches the bounds of biological plausibility. And, as we saw above, many cancers have been attacked successfully by treatments marketed by Big Pharma. Sure, they make a boatload of money from these treatments (and that becomes another argument for another day), but they also work (which refutes another one of those silly cancer myths pushed by the ignorant).
But let’s just pretend that this imaginary one cure to cure them all, purified from the rainbow farts of unicorns, actually exists. How would Big Pharma deal with this mythical cure?
- Despite the conspiracy theories, Big Pharma is hardly one monolithic monopoly. There are nearly 20,000 biopharmaceutical companies across the developed world. And many of them loathe each other – they couldn’t give a Rattus norvegicus‘ gluteus maximus about one another. If one prospered and one disappeared, there would be cheers in the successful one. If one company invented this cure, there would not be one nanosecond thought about any of the other companies and their bottom lines.
- Big Pharma does not engage in groupthink about cancer treatment – many of these companies can only focus a handful of treatments, not treatments for all 200 or more cancers. Considering the cost of development of a single drug, which can exceed US$1 billion, along with the huge rate of failure, where 90% of new cancer drugs never get approved by the FDA and other regulatory bodies across the world, most companies only focus on a handful of cancers and drugs.
- There is literally no way to keep this imaginary cure secret. Big Pharma rarely does cancer research by itself in a secret underground laboratory under the Antarctic Ice Sheet managed by the Reptilian Overlords. Usually, cancer research is a collaboration between research universities and hospitals, government (like the National Cancer Institute), and pharmaceutical companies. Preliminary research would be published in peer-reviewed journals and discussed in large scientific meetings. Everyone would know about it. Of course, the most important research would have to be done in large clinical trials, all of which require Institutional Review Board approval for ethics, FDA approval to start clinical trials, and listing in the clinical trials database.
- And let’s not forget about social media – how many participants in a clinical trial will post it on Facebook? How many would hear about it and demand the drug for themselves, their mothers, their children, their friends? Furthermore, since this research isn’t done by 10 people in a secret underground bunker, there will be dozens, maybe hundreds of employees of this Big Pharma corporation would know about the drug. They’d demand it too.
- Finally, if we’re going to subscribe to some lame conspiracy theory, let’s be logically consistent. If you want to believe that Big Pharma will hide a cure because they’re making a few billion off a handful of cancer treatments, then we need to accept that they would want to make hundreds of billions of dollars from this magical cure. If they owned this cure, they could charge just about any price for it, and millions of people would pay for it. They would tell countries that try to regulate their prices to go jump in a lake. Pay $1 million per dose, or your citizens won’t get it (they wouldn’t do this, but I’m just trying to be consistent with the conspiracy). Of course, if they did this to Germany, all the wealthy Germans would fly to the USA to get the treatment. Big Pharma execs would be lining the boardroom with bars of gold if they were the ones to discover the magical mythical cancer cure.
- Wait, there’s one more finally. This ridiculous cancer myth depends on an inane belief that every employee of Big Pharma lacks morals or ethics. Someone would blow the whistle. Maybe because she wants to make sure her dad gets the treatment.
Cancer myths – something causes cancer
People think that cancer is caused by some on/off switch. That’s not quite accurate. There are some smokers who don’t get lung cancer. And there are some individuals who never smoke who do get lung cancer. Now, let me be perfectly clear – I am not saying that smoking is fine. In fact, smokers are 15-30 times more likely to contract lung cancer than non-smokers.
Many researchers accept that most genetic mutations which lead to cancer are more or less random, just bad luck. In this 2017 study, the authors analyzed data for 32 cancer types and found that approximately two-thirds of the mutations found in these cancers resulted from random or spontaneous errors in the DNA. This data came from 69 countries on six continents, in which the researchers found a statistically significant correlation between the incidence of cancer and the total number of stem cell divisions. Moreover, this correlation held up globally, irrespective of the environment encountered.
The original 2015 study, authored by Cristian Tomasetti, a biostatistician interested in cancer evolution, genomics, and stem cell dynamics, and Bert Vogelstein, who is one of the preeminent leaders in cancer research, first proposed the hypothesis that cancer was mostly “bad luck.” That article generated dozens of published comments (no, not like what you find on Facebook, but actually published by the journal Science in subsequent issues).
The aforementioned David Gorski, a surgical oncologist, wrote about this study back in 2015 in Science-Based Medicine. Although Dr. Gorski does criticize some parts of the paper by Tomasetti and Vogelstein, overall he does indicate that random mutations are responsible for a large majority of cancers:
Given the level of uncertainty inherent in such estimates, even if you interpret Vogelstein and Tomasetti’s conclusion that two thirds of cancers are due to “bad luck,” their estimate of the percentage of cancers that are probably not preventable is definitely in the ballpark of commonly-accepted estimates, albeit at the lower end. Does that mean they’re on to something in concluding that stem cell replication over one’s lifetime primarily determines the “stochastic” component of cancer risk for each organ? That remains to be seen, but their preliminary finding makes sense, both from the perspective of producing a result that’s in the ballpark of what we already know based on epidemiology and being biologically plausible based on basic cancer biology.
Let’s look at it another way. The average body has around 50 trillion cells each of which contains over 3 billion DNA base pairs. That’s 150,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 base pairs in each person. Even though people believe that their cells are “perfect” in replicating themselves, that’s not true. Errors may occur in human cells anywhere from 0.0001% to as high as 1% of base pairs. That could mean billions of mutations, although most are corrected by cellular machinery, it still means millions of mutations that could lead to cancer.
No, there’s nothing you can do about this. You cannot down a bunch of vitamin C, become vegan, or drink some special concoction pushed by your local naturopathic quack to reduce the number of mutations. These base pair errors are just very rare events that result from chemical interactions of nucleotides in the cell.
Cancer myths – yeah but XYZ causes cancer
Despite the fact that 2/3 of cancer have no cause except random mutations, 1/3 of cancers do have some link to an environmental issue. But let’s look at what those are:
- Second-hand smoke.
- UV radiation from the sun or tanning beds.
- Vaccine-preventable viruses like HPV and hepatitis B.
- Radiation (which includes the ubiquitous radon gas found in many homes).
- Poor diet.
- Sedentary lifestyle.
- Airborne pollutants.
Most of those are preventable, or at least you have a significant influence on them.
The average American, Canadian, or European has around a 50% chance of contracting cancer over a lifetime. That means out of 100,000 people, 50,000 will have to deal with cancer at least once. Almost all of those 50,000 cases are as a result of random mutations or one of the 10 issues listed above.
Let’s say that someone says drinking coffee is linked to cancer. Instead of 50,000 cases, maybe we’d see 50,001 cases. It’s not going to mean that we’d see 100,000 cases. Remember, it’s not an on/off switch, it’s a very tiny increase in risk.
Moreover, do you know how difficult it is to distinguish 50,000 from 50,001 cases of cancer? It’s next to impossible. We’d need a powerful epidemiological or clinical study that included over 50 billion participants (about 7X the number of people on the planet) to distinguish such a change in cancer risk. In other words, we wouldn’t be able to tell you that the cancer was linked to coffee or just one additional random mutation. Or some particle of smoke from the cigar smoker in the car next to you while you’re jogging along the street.
There are a lot of cancer myths out there. Most of them are based on a lack of understanding of cancer science, embracing ridiculous conspiracy theories, and internal logical errors.
These myths would be amusing except for people who might decide to refuse science-based medicine and rely upon quacks and charlatans who push these myths for their own profits.
Cancer is a scary set of diseases. I remember getting the diagnosis for my cancer, and I couldn’t sleep well for a few weeks. But I asked my oncologist a lot of questions (lucky for me, I have a substantial science and medical background, so I knew what to ask), so I felt better. And this was in the ancient world of cancer treatment.
Hopefully, this list will help some of you reject the crackpot cancer myths.
- Cronin KA, Lake AJ, Scott S, Sherman RL, Noone AM, Howlader N, Henley SJ, Anderson RN, Firth AU, Ma J, Kohler BA, Jemal A. Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, part I: National cancer statistics. Cancer. 2018 May 22. doi: 10.1002/cncr.31551. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 29786848.
- Hunger SP, Mullighan CG. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in Children. N Engl J Med. 2015 Oct 15;373(16):1541-52. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra1400972. Review. PubMed PMID: 26465987.
- Nowak MA, Waclaw B. Genes, environment, and “bad luck”. Science. 2017 Mar 24;355(6331):1266-1267. doi: 10.1126/science.aam9746. PubMed PMID: 28336626.
- Tomasetti C, Vogelstein B. Cancer etiology. Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions. Science. 2015 Jan 2;347(6217):78-81. doi: 10.1126/science.1260825. PubMed PMID: 25554788; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4446723.