One of the most interesting aspects of the “Age Of Misinformation” is the flourishing of thousands of medical myths. These are usually propagated by people who are not qualified medical professionals or scientists, who peddle misinterpreted or flat-out incorrect information to the Internet masses. Whether these myths are started to sell products or in good faith, they can not only be extremely confusing for those looking for answers, but also very dangerous to those who mistake them for reliable medical advice. Possibly the most flagrant example of these medical myths is the “anti-vaccine” movement, which is making real damage to children and adults all over the world. However, in this article I am going to look into 5 examples of cancer-related myths that have struck me a particularly dangerous as a cancer scientist.
While researching this piece, I have come to the conclusion that what all these myths have in common is the fact that most people want them to be true. They usually offer a simple, inexpensive and guaranteed cure, or point the finger at a single, common behavior as the underlying cause of cancer. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was indeed the case? Myths like these offer people a sense of control over their own lives at a time when we are especially confronted with the notion that we have, in fact, very little. Cancer is one of the most complex diseases known to man and we are now acutely aware of how likely it is that it will one day affect us or one of our loved ones. This is a scary thought, readily exorcised by pseudo-scientific theories offering instant salvation.
1. Cancer Is A Fungus
I have found this particular notion fascinating for a while (you can read my previous post on the subject here). The idea has found quite a lot of support online and it stems from the simple theory that tumors are simply fungal growths and that therefore all that is needed to cure them is…bicarb. While the idea of curing cancer with a few spoonfuls of something most people have in their kitchen cupboards certainly does sound reassuring, it is sadly lacking basis in reality.
The first real problem with it is that cancer cells are most certainly human cells and have absolutely nothing in common with fungal cells. As any high-school science student would be able to tell you, fungal cells and animal cells look quite different under even the most basic of microscopes. Animal cells are surrounded by a very thin and flexible membrane (known as the cell membrane), while fungal cells are surrounded by a thick wall that protects them from the harsh nature of their environment. Cancer cells from patients are being looked at by hundreds of thousands of scientists (and high-school students) all around the world and so far there has been not a single reported case of them looking at all like they have a cell wall. Moreover, thousands of laboratories all around the world are analyzing DNA extracted from cancer cells – and every time, without fault, what they find is 100% human DNA – which as anyone can imagine looks really very different from the DNA of any fungus.
The second aspect of this conspiracy theory that I find fascinating is that it betrays a lack of internal consistency. In fact, while sodium bicarbonate is very effective at stopping fungus from growing (acting as a fungistatic), it does not kill fungus. That is why while the traditional remedies for candida and other common fungal infections involve bicarb, they all need to be supplemented with fungicidal medication to completely clear the infection. This means that even if cancer were to be a fungus (which it absolutely is not), bicarb would not treat it. What’s more, whoever made this story up lacks even a basic understanding of pharmacology and of how simple cell biology works – all things that are really quite important when trying to improve cancer therapy.
2. An Acid Diet Causes Cancer
This is a fascinating case of an urban myth with a very clear origin story. Cancer cells usually switch their metabolism from aerobic to anaerobic respiration, often because they they are too far away from a blood vessel to get the oxygen they need. One of the byproducts of anaerobic respiration is lactic acid , which is the same substance produced in your muscles when you work out for a sustained period of time. If you would like a more in-depth discussion on this switch, check out my previous post. This means that the environment around cancer cells is more acidic. It does not, however, mean that taking away the acid will make the cancer go away (for my previous post on the “alkaline diet”, click here). However, different variations of the myth suggest that an “alkaline diet” will keep cancer at bay, or alternatively that eating “alkaline” food or taking in high-pH substances like sodium bicarbonate will cure a pre-existing tumor. In fact, these treatments were in the news earlier this year since a Royal Army officer died while seeking treatment for her breast cancer through bicarbonate infusions. It is perhaps needless to say that there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that these treatments or diets help cancer patients in any way.
Once again, there is a second, even more confusing layer to the myth. Searching for an “alkaline diet” chart online reveals that foods considered “alkaline” are simply not so. Lemons, for instance, are highly acidic but feature in the “alkaline” food section of many diet plans, alongside kiwi fruit and pineapple. On the other hand, the “acidic” foods tend to include junk foods and soda, independently of their pH. In a way, these diet charts seem to have put all they healthy food on one side and all the junk food on the other. This means that paradoxically an “alkaline” diet is probably quite healthy, if anything because it features foods that are low sugar and fat and high in fiber, protein and vitamins.
3. Sugar Causes Cancer, Or Makes It Worse
The idea has somehow taken hold online that cancer feeds on sugar and that therefore the simple cure for cancer is to not eat any sugar at all, thus starving the tumor. Reality is somehow more complex. First of all, all cells “eat sugar” as a way to get energy. No cell in the body can survive without it. Secondly, “sugar” is meant in the literal sense of the word. Sugars such as glucose are a particular class of molecules that while abundantly available in sweets and cakes is also derived from all other foods. Carbohydrates, for instance, are broken down in the body to make sugar, which is then distributed to cells around the body as a source of energy. All cells in the body feed on sugar. However, cancer cells are by definition dividing much more quickly than the rest – in other ways, they are running a fast 1000 meters while the rest of the cells of the body are taking a leisurely stroll. This means that cancer cells are consuming much more sugar than regular cells – but this is a consequence of cancerous activity rather than a cause.
Naturally, eating a healthy diet with a sensible amount of sugar is a very good idea whether one is a cancer patient or not. In fact, keeping a healthy weight is a one of the best ways to protect yourself from cancer – but this is by no way “starving cancer cells”. Once again, reality is much less exciting and in a way much more pedestrian than the sensationalist version of events.
4. Cancer Is A Modern Problem
One of the most common preconceptions about cancer within the general public is that cancer is a modern ailment. The idea is of course rooted insensible observation. We don’t often hear of people in the 1800s dying of cancer and you certainly didn’t see people running 5k races in support of cancer patients in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. The logical conclusion is that cancer must be a modern disease, brought about by modern life – which usually sets off a desperate search for what part of modern life might be causing cancer. The rather confusing truth is that the one aspect of modern life that is causing an increase in cancer diagnoses is…medicine. While of course plenty of young and healthy people do get cancer, it still remains largely a disease of the old. In fact, age is the single most important risk factor when considering anyone’s cancer risk. The older you are, the more likely it is you will develop a tumor. Turning 55 is, statistically speaking, the most dangerous thing of all as it doubles your risk of being diagnosed with a tumor. Of course, in the past there weren’t quite as many people who turned 55 or that lived for a long time after having done so. Life expectancy has increased dramatically throughout the world, thanks to unbelievable advances in medicine and in the life conditions of most of the world population. This means that there are more at-risk people in the world, which in turn means more and more people will get cancer.
The good news is, medicine is getting even better. The chances of surviving cancer are improving every year – which means that soon we will not only be around to get cancer, but we will be able to survive it for longer and longer.
5. Deodorant Causes Cancer (and a billion other things)
The search for the “magic bullet” – the key thing that’s causing cancer in otherwise healthy-looking people and that we can easily get rid of – has pointed in some bizarre directions. As pointed out by several humorous and not-so-humorous websites, the popular media has blamed cancer on a variety of everyday objects – from aspirin, to deodorant, to sunscreen, to food coloring. As I tirelessly state in my weekly pieces, much of this is aimed at giving us a sense of false security: getting rid of deodorant and not putting food coloring in our birthday cakes are easy things we can implement starting today, giving us the sense that we are actually in control of our fate.
Unfortunately, it is not quite so simple. One of the main risk factors for cancer is genetics, which is far past our control. There are, however, real things that we can do to gain at least some control over cancer. None of them are quite as easy and satisfyingly neat as stop dyeing your hair and none of them would sell quite as many papers, but they are real, scientifically logical things that can have a real impact on our lives. There are many services currently available that allow for testing for specific genetic mutations that carry a cancer risk. Knowing about our specific genetic weaknesses can be a very powerful weapon to make informed lifestyle and medical decisions to bring down our cancer risk. For example, patients carrying certain BRCA2 mutations have the option to undergo preventative surgery to eliminate the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Secondly, there definitely are things that cause cancer. In particular, tobacco consumption and obesity are two of the most widely-spread public health issues in the country. Tackling those problems might not guarantee total control, but is a real way to reduce our cancer risk.