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In honour of World Cancer Day on 4 February, we help you increase your awareness of cancer by busting 5 widely held myths about the disease.
We all know the basics of how to prevent cancer - avoiding tobacco, exercising, eating healthily, getting regularly screened, and wearing sunblock. But many of us have also heard certain facts about the disease that have been proven to be untrue. Up your awareness by reading these commonly held beliefs about cancer that have been debunked so you can protect yourself and your family.
1. Myth: The greatest risk factor for cancer is poor lifestyle
Truth: The greatest risk factor for cancer is, in fact, age.
The simple fact is that, thanks to advances in modern medicine including vaccines, as well as a greater access to nutritious food, people are living longer today than ever before. As we age, DNA damage builds up in our cells, and that damage can lead to the growth of cancer cells. This is why more people today have cancer than in years gone by.
That said, having a balanced diet, exercising, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and not smoking do go a long way in protecting you from the disease. Smoking, for example, is the cause of a quarter of all cancer deaths in the UK.
2. Myth: Superfoods prevent cancer
Truth: In reality, eating lots of different fruit and vegetables, and avoiding red and processed meat, is what's important - the specific kind of fruit or veg doesn't matter.
Don't be fooled by clever marketing that tries to convince you that the antioxidant levels in things like green tea, blueberries and garlic will protect you from getting cancer. What's important is that you strive for a balanced diet that contains plenty of different fresh fruit and vegetables. There is no scientific evidence that antioxidants prevent cancer, but plenty of evidence that people who choose diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables tend to be less susceptible.
For more on the the debunking of the superfood and antioxidant cancer myth, see Cancer Research UK.
3. Myth: A cancer diagnosis means you are going to die
Truth: Today, half the number of people who are diagnosed with cancer will live for at least another 10 years.
Because of great advances in cancer drugs and screening methods, many types of cancer are successfully cured today. Detecting certain cancers early can increase survival rates to close to 100%. Chemotherapy has meant that three-quarters of children with cancer are cured, compared to one-quarter in the 1960s, and a new drug called cisplatin has ensured that 96% of men with testicular cancer can now be cured, compared with fewer than 70% in the 70s.
So, depending on the type of cancer and the stage at which it is diagnosed, you will have at least a 50% chance of living for at least another 10 years. And in the last decade alone, cancer death rates have dropped by 10%.
4. Myth: Most cancers are genetically inherited
Truth: It is only a very small percentage of cancers that are inherited. Most cancers occur from gene changes in a person's cells over their lifetime.
When cancer strikes more than one person in a family, it is tempting to think that it's because cancer is inherited. But because cancer is so common these days, the chances that more than one member of a family will get a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime are fairly high. Also, family members tend to have similar risk factors in common - perhaps they all smoke, or non-smoking family members are exposed to another's secondhand smoke; or perhaps they're all obese, which can increase their risk.
However, there are certain types of cancer that are directly inherited through DNA. Known as family cancer syndromes, they are caused by gene mutations, and are relatively rare. Cancers that run in families are usually: rare cancers, such as kidney cancer; cancers that affect both of the same organ, like cancer in both breasts; cancers that occur at a younger age than usual, like colon cancer in a teenager; cancers that occur in different parts of the same person, such as a woman being diagnosed with both breast and lung cancer; and more.
Remember that cancer is complex, and so is genetics, so it's best to read more on genetically inherited cancers if it's a concern for you. Check out cancer.org's thorough explanation of family cancer syndromes.
5. Myth: A positive attitude can help beat cancer
Truth: This cannot be said enough: cancer survival depends on the effectiveness of treatment, and the stage at which it is detected. The victim's attitude has very little to do with it, other than for their own peace of mind.
This persistent myth can be the most disheartening to anyone who has had, or has loved someone who has had, cancer. Some people have a naturally optimistic approach to life, and some don't, but the one message that cancer sufferers across the board get is, 'It's important to stay positive and to keep fighting'. And this comes at one of the most difficult times of their life.
What can help, though, is keeping a strong support structure, talking to others who have had cancer, and making sure family affairs are in order in case the unthinkable happens.
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Sources: cancer.org; cancerresearchuk.org; readersdigest.co.uk