With something as serious and life-altering as cancer, people want to know more about the potential causes, treatments and cures. And nobody has a deeper sense of urgency than cancer patients and their friends and family. Sometimes the need to know leads to questionable sources of infor-mation. And that’s how the cancer myths start.
One myth has it that there’s a conspiracy on the part of pharmaceutical companies to avoid finding a cure for cancer because they make so much money by treating disease. “That’s disconcerting if your life depends on it,” says Dr. Michael Speca, registered clinical psychologist in the department of psychosocial oncology in Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre. Cancer myths have an allure because, he says, everyone wants to be the one to beat cancer. “Even though we’ve had improvements for treating many kinds of cancer, we still don’t have enough knowledge to make everyone feel safe and feel like they’re going to survive,” Speca says, “so they naturally want to exhaust the possibilities.” Even if those possibilities are untested and far-fetched.
Dr. Nigel Brockton, research scientist for molecular cancer epidemiology, population health research for Alberta Health Services, has heard similar myths from patients he works with. He’s a co-researcher in a study to determine why the disease spreads to the bones of some breast cancer patients but not others. During the course of his study, interviewers ask patients a set of questions and, so far, the 200-plus surveyed have almost all said they believe stress is a reason they got cancer. Brockton has heard or read accounts from patients that they believe aspartame, deodorant and acidic diets can also cause cancer. “These things are always seductive because there’s enough truth in there for people not to completely discount them,” Brockton says.
When Brockton was 21, he faced his own second bout with cancer – sarcoma. At the time, the early 1990s, beta-carotene was the rumoured solution to cancer, so his mother was sure to give him a daily dose. Trials were still going on and it was eventually determined that lung cancer patients faced an increased reoccurrence of the disease when taking beta-carotene. “The truth is an elusive thing and that’s why we’re doing the research.” Brockton’s research, and that of others, is ongoing.
Brockton’s objections to Facebook postings and wild Internet rumours about the causes and cures for disease stem from the fact, he says, that they take away from the things that can actually make a difference in a cancer patient’s life.
Speca suggests that people concerned about a loved one do the legwork and research a rumoured cancer cure, diet or treatment regimen before overloading a patient with untested advice. A cancer diagnosis is confusing enough, he says, so hold back even if your intentions come from a good place. Reliable sources of cancer information, Speca says, include the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the United States, and any larger, well-known cancer centres.