To make sure you’re informed about the truths concerning cancer, the National Cancer Action Team asked a variety of organisations to provide what they felt were the Top 10 myths about cancer in their community. We then collated these and asked the Department of Health, Cancer Research UK and NHS Cancer Screening Programmes to review the myths and provide us with the reality.
These are commonly held myths in African and African-Caribbean Communities. We will be adding myths for other ethnic groups very soon.
1. Black people generally have a lower rate of cancer than other cultural groups, in particular caucasians
In the UK, black people do have lower rates of many cancers than white people, including breast, bowel and lung cancers. However, they also have higher rates of prostate, stomach and liver cancers.
2. Anti-perspirants with aluminium and parabens cause breast cancer and in particular the spread of cancer to underarm lymph nodes
This myth started with an email hoax, and there is no evidence to back it up. In fact, we know that women who use deodorants are no more likely to develop cancer than those who do not. Some people claim that a chemical called parabens in deodorants could lead to cancer. But this is not true – parabens are unlikely to have a big effect in our body and most modern deodorants do not have parabens anyway.
3. Breast cancer screening e.g. squashing the breasts between the x-ray plates can cause cancer
There is no evidence that the process of squashing the breasts in order to take an x-ray can cause cancer. However there is a very tiny risk from the x-ray radiation. Scientists estimate that if 14,000 women were screened regularly for 10 years, one woman may die from breast cancer caused by x-ray radiation. But you have to weigh up this small risk against the risk of breast cancer to your health. Around 7 cancers are found for every 1,000 women screened and the cancers found are generally at an earlier stage when they are much easier to treat and cure.
4. All burnt or over grilled foods cause cancer
Cooking meat at high temperatures, such as on a barbeque, can produce chemicals that can damage body cells. However, it is not clear if this could increase the risk of cancer. We know that people who eat a lot of red and processed meat – such as beef, sausages or bacon – have a higher risk of cancer than people who don’t eat so much of these meats.
5. Surgery can cause the spread of cancer to other organs
There is no evidence that surgery can spread cancer to other organs. In theory, if a cancer ruptures during an operation, cancer cells could spill out. But surgeons take extreme care to make sure this doesn’t happen. When keyhole surgery first started, there were rare reports of tumours developing at the site where the surgeon put the scope through the skin. Since then, the techniques have developed further to stop this happening. Having a cancer and not having it treated is a far, far greater risk to your health. In time it is almost certain to spread to other parts of your body.
6. Cervical cancer is caused by having too many sexual partners
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by a virus called HPV, which is passed on through sex. Many people in the UK are infected with HPV and most infections go away on their own. Only a small minority of them progress on to cancer. It is true that the more sexual partners someone has, the higher their risk of getting HPV, and developing cervical cancer. But it is not true that this applies to everyone with cervical cancer. It is perfectly possible to pick up HPV from just one partner if they are infected. You can reduce your risk of any sexually transmitted infection, including HPV, by practising safe sex.
7. Herbal medicine can cure cancer
There is no evidence that herbal medicine can cure cancer. Some cancer medicines have been developed from plants after they have been found to have an effect on cancer cells in laboratory tests. But this is a complex process involving a huge amount of medical research. Herbal medicines contain a mixture of many different substances in varying amounts, some of which may be harmful and others that may interact with conventional medicines. There have been some trials testing herbal medicines as cancer treatments, but there is no strong evidence that any of them can prevent, treat or cure cancer.
8. Microwaving foods can cause cancer
People sometimes send round hoax emails saying that microwaving foods can cause cancer. There is no evidence at all to back this up. Some of the emails say that it is microwaving food in plastic containers or cling film that causes cancer. This isn’t true either, but if it worries you, just use either microwaveable plastic or a glass bowl with a plate on top.
9. Fibroids can turn ‘nasty’ and lead to cancer after the menopause
Fibroids are very common. Because doctors sometimes refer to them as ‘tumours’, people confuse them with cancer. However they are not cancer - they are benign (non cancerous) growths. In many women, they don’t even cause any symptoms and need no treatment. Other women may suffer from pelvic pain and very heavy periods and so may need treatment. In fact, fibroids may become less troublesome after menopause as they shrink in some women.
There is a very rare type of cancer called a ‘leiomyosarcoma’. Very, very rarely a woman having surgery to remove fibroids is found to have this type of tumour, which grows in the muscle layer of the womb. But it does not develop from a fibroid – it is a completely different condition.
10. If you sleep in a bra it prevents breast cancer/If you sleep in a bra you can get breast cancer as the breasts overheat / Under-wire bras cause breast cancer
There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that wearing any kind of bra, night or day, can either prevent or cause breast cancer. This myth started with a book which claimed that underwire bras stop toxins from draining away from the breast. But this is not how the body works – fluids in the breast actually travel up and out of the armpits rather than down towards the wire. Wearing a bra will not affect your cancer risk.