From OncoLog, August 2012, Vol. 57,
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which is outdated or false.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
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
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
– K. Stuyck
For more information, talk to your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.
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