Catching Cancer?

Making clear some of the common misunderstandings for World Cancer Day.

This week I was in a secondary school doing some health science outreach talks. I love this sort of event because they really allow engagement of kids in science on their terms. As part of the event, I did a Q&A where the teens asked me questions about health, biology and generally anything they wanted to, really. One of the kids, who had, what many staff fondly refer to as ‘a bit of a personality’ asked me the question “how do you catch cancer?”

Now there’s a question. “You don’t actually ‘catch’ cancer,” I said. The room went silent. You could probably hear a pin drop as a classroom of teenagers suddenly stopped and listened. “Cancer is the outcome of a range of things, you can’t just catch it like you would the cold or chicken pox.” I went on to give a rough overview of cancer and was inundated with questions. “So why can’t everyone just be given the medication my Auntie had?” “Isn’t there a way to stop it?” “Isn’t cancer from smoking then?” I fielded the questions whilst trying not to make the event too upsetting for an otherwise already rather dreary midweek afternoon. But that particular session really made me think long and hard about just how much people may not understand about the biggest medical concepts of our times.

This one event shows how important public engagement into science is, as otherwise we are going to end up a society where those in the scientific and healthcare fields understand these problems, whilst everyone else doesn’t. Cancer is indiscriminate, so the basic understanding of the disease should also be available to all.

So since today is World Cancer Day, I thought I’d address a few of the major misconceptions which people have about the The Big C. And if just one reader finds something out they didn’t otherwise know and is able to pass that information onto somebody else, my work here is done.


Cancer is one disease:

This cropped up at the school scientific engagement event I was at earlier on this week, too. Cancer is not one disease. Cancer is an umbrella term for a whole host of over a hundred different illnesses, all of which have similarities (an extensive list is available from Cancer Research UK here). Some cancers are much more complex and vicious than others, and some are now easier to treat. This misconception is arguably the result of the previous lack of scientific engagement and the high frequency of headlines which scream out to us about “the cure for cancer” or “the cancer wonder drug” (this recent headline in the Daily Mail is an excellent example of how a single sentence can drive misconception). Finding out somebody has cancer is never nice. But by knowing the type of cancer which they have can provide a better idea of just how scary the diagnosis actually is.


Scientists are trying to find the cure for cancer:

This follows on nicely from my last point. No one science lab will ever find the ‘cure’ to cancer. It’s impossible. Labs work on individual cancers. So yes, breakthroughs in breast cancer research labs may find drugs which can be used to treat patients with specific types of breast cancer. But the same drug is likely going to be useless on a patient who has leukaemia. This misconception often goes hand in hand with the assumption that cancer is a single disease, which can be assumed from vague and sweeping statements made by popular media outlets. I am not saying that cancer is incurable, because science is advancing and leading to better outlooks for many cancer patients. But the term ‘the cure for cancer’ is a huge generalisation and one which is technically factually incorrect. The cures for various cancers arise as different research groups make different discoveries. It also is likely to depend on just how complex the specific cancer is, the time of diagnosis, and a whole range of other factors. There is no universal ‘cure’ for cancer, even if many cancers currently all have the same basic treatments.


All tumours are cancer:

This is completely false. Most tumours and cysts are not at all cancerous. However, some of them are cancerous, and this is why there is so much focus on them. Cancer is harder to treat the more advanced it is, so the logic behind promoting the checks for lumps and bumps is simple: it’s better to be safe than sorry. Yes, finding a lump can be a terrible and scary time whilst going through testing, but it’s safer than leaving it alone and hoping that it’s not cancer. Telling someone that you’ve found a lump automatically leads many people to panicking that you’ve got cancer, but usually tests will show that the lump is not currently cancerous. Yes, it could become cancerous, and so require monitoring or sometimes removal even though it is not dangerous at the time. But one of the biggest things which can be dangerous is to infer that something is cancer just because it is a tumour. It causes unnecessary stress and worry to yourself and loved ones which could be completely unnecessary. It’s always better to get it checked by a professional and wait for the official result.


Breast cancer is only for women:

Another falsehood, and a dangerous one. Yes, women are much more likely to get breast cancer, but men can also develop the disease. By promoting the belief that only women can get the disease, many men fail to get diagnosed until it is too late. The symptoms are similar to those in women, even though men have less breast tissue. Breast cancer can occur in women at a wide range of ages, but the majority of male breast cancer cases occur in men over the age of sixty. This is primarily due to (but not only because of, for a whole range of details see here) men having increased levels of oestrogen in their bodies as they get older (or if they are heavily overweight). Men can develop breast cancer, even if it is much less likely than women. The misconception that breast cancer is a women’s only disease needs to be addressed.


Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy are the same thing:

This is less of a common misconception, but still one which I’ve encountered. Here’s the deal: if you think chemotherapy is when beams of radiation are fired at a tumour, you are wrong. That’s radiotherapy, which is often used in combination with chemotherapy. Radiotherapy is when a person goes to a hospital (usually everyday for a week, with the weekend off, but different people can require different amounts) and low doses of radiation are fired precisely at where the cancer is. Other methods are available which involve implants or swallowed radiation pills, but the type most people think of is the beams. So what is chemotherapy, I hear you ask! Chemotherapy is the drugs (usually given via a drip or tablets) which help the radiotherapy to work. It is also used when cancer has spread to more than one place in the body, because radiotherapy can only target one place at once, and a person cannot be exposed to too much radiation. It is chemotherapy drugs which cause hair loss. This is because, unlike radiotherapy which targets a specific area, chemotherapy circulates round the whole body. It targets cells which grow rapidly, since this is usually a feature of cancer. However, hair cells are also ones which grow quickly. The drugs cannot tell the difference between a harmless hair cell and a dangerous cancer cell, so all of them are targeted. That’s why your hair falls out if you have chemotherapy, it’s nothing to do with overexposure to radiation (though radiotherapy does cause hair loss in the direct area it is targeted at). This can be a big issue for patients, so work is being done to try and combat hair loss in cancer patients. But the main take-home message here is that radiotherapy and chemotherapy are not the same thing, even though they are usually both used in combination.




So there you are. Five misconceptions about cancer clarified. If you already knew this, then that’s great. But if you didn’t I hope you appreciate that you’ve now got a better understanding of The Big C on this World Cancer Day.


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