From OncoLog, August 2012, Vol. 57, No. 8

House Call: Cancer Treatment Myths
Misconceptions can be dangerous

Cancer treatment can be a frightening prospect for someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis.

Adding to the anxiety is a confusing mixture of information, some of which is outdated or false. The following are some common myths about cancer treatment and the real facts of the matter.

MYTH: Cancer treatment side effects are worse than the disease.
FACT: Although cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can have unpleasant side effects, recent advances in anti-nausea medications, precision radiation treatments, and minimally invasive surgery have greatly diminished patients’ discomfort. Today, side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and tissue damage are less severe than in the past.

Oncologists meet with each patient and family to set goals for effective control of the cancer and maximization of the patient’s quality of life during and after treatment.

MYTH: Cancer is always painful.
FACT: Some cancers never cause pain. For patients who do experience pain, especially those with advanced cancer, doctors today strive to recognize the need to control the pain and have better ways to manage it. These include the use of pain medications, treatments to shrink or remove pain-causing tumors, and interventional pain procedures such as epidural injections and nerve blocks.

Although all pain may not be completely eliminated, it can be controlled so that it has the least possible impact on a patient’s function and well-being.

MYTH: Cancer treatment means being confined to a hospital bed.
FACT: Most people are treated for cancer on an outpatient basis, and hospital stays, when necessary, are much shorter than in past decades. Often, oncologists at cancer centers work with doctors in patients’ hometowns to provide continued care there, allowing patients to be with family and friends and continue their daily activities during cancer treatment.

MYTH: Everyone with the same kind of cancer receives the same kind of treatment.
FACT: Physicians now tailor cancer treatment to the individual patient. The kind of treatment received is based on where the cancer is located, whether or how much it has spread, and how it affects body functions and general health.

In addition, a patient’s overall health affects the choice of treatment. Increasingly, the gene mutations present in a patient’s cancer also are helping guide the type of treatment.

MYTH: Positive thinking will cure cancer.
FACT: There is no scientific evidence that a “positive attitude” provides patients with an advantage in cancer treatment or improves their chance of being cured. However, it is important for patients to stay active, maintain relationships with family and friends, and continue enjoyable activities.

MYTH: Some people are too old for cancer treatment.
FACT: There is no age limit for cancer treatment, which can be just as beneficial for older adults as for younger ones.

More important than a patient’s chronological age is the body’s biologic age. Cancer patients who are older but have no other serious illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, often do as well as or better than younger patients with additional health issues. People with cancer should receive the treatment that is best suited to their condition and overall health, irrespective of age.

MYTH: A needle biopsy can cause cancer cells to spread to other parts of the body.
FACT: A needle biopsy is a procedure done to learn what kind of tumor a patient has. In this procedure, a needle is inserted into the tumor to remove a bit of tissue, which is then studied under a microscope. For most types of cancer, there is no evidence that performing a needle biopsy can influence metastasis to other parts of the body.

There are exceptions. For example, testicular cancer is not diagnosed using a needle biopsy of the testicle. Instead, blood tests and imaging techniques such as ultrasonography are used, and if a doctor suspects testicular cancer, the testicle is removed at some point in the course of treatment.

MYTH: Exposing a tumor to air during surgery causes cancer to spread.
FACT: Surgery can’t cause cancer to spread. Surgically removing cancer is often the first and most important treatment.

MYTH: Cancer is an incurable disease, and going for treatment is pointless.
FACT: With the medical advances made in recent years, the death rate from cancer has greatly decreased. Several forms of cancers are now curable. In other types, effective treatments have extended patients’ lives for many years after their initial diagnosis.

There are many types of cancer and numerous treatments, so stories about a particular patient’s experience will not apply to others. Doctors and nurses are the most reliable source of information for cancer patients.

– K. Stuyck

For more information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.


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