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Recognizing and Dealing With False Beliefs About Causes of Cancer

Carola is a breast cancer survivor. She writes about health, chronic illness, and disabilities.

cancer cells

cancer cells

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, I was amazed at how the people around me reacted to the news. Suddenly, they were asking me some strange questions about my diet and lifestyle. What was I eating? Was I exercising? It made me feel guilty – as if they were trying to blame me for developing cancer. I also have heard many different theories about what causes cancer.

When I conduct research into health topics as a writer, I come across some intriguing headlines in the media about foods or devices that claim to cause cancer (carcinogens). Every once and a while, a friend or a follower on my social media pages would post a long diatribe, photo, or image about how some object, substance, or food causes cancer. After I stop slapping my cheek in disbelief at the fake news, I have come to believe that many people have strange misconceptions and false beliefs about the causes of this condition.

Research on Fake News re Causes of Cancer

A 2018 study by Cancer Research UK confirmed to me that many people still have some false and downright strange ideas about the “mythical” causes of cancer. Researchers surveyed 1,330 people in England and found that 40 percent of the participants incorrectly thought that cancer was caused by food additives (42 percent) and stress (43 percent).

Most participants could identify proven causes such as smoking and sun exposure. Among the participants, 33 percent had false beliefs that the following were risk factors for cancer despite a lack of convincing scientific evidence:

  • 34 percent - Eating genetically modified food
  • 35 percent - Electromagnetic frequencies
  • 19 percent - Exposure to microwave ovens
  • 15 percent - Drinking from plastic bottles

Common myths about the causes of cancer

I have put together a list of common myths about cancer causes that I have encountered on the Internet and from sources such as the Mayo Clinic and the Daily Mail.

Cancer is contagious

I feel sad when people recoiled after learning about my diagnosis. Cancer does not spread to others. People like me who have or have had this condition need supportive friends who are not afraid to hug them now and then and are willing to spend time with them.

Deodorants or antiperspirants cause breast cancer

Some reports suggest that products containing parabens, aluminum compounds, and other substances may be harmful to the skin or the body. There is no conclusive evidence, however, that these products cause breast cancer, says the National Cancer Institute and other researchers.

Microwaving releases harmful, carcinogenic substances

Some people believe that using a microwave will release harmful material that will cause cancer. Containers that are labeled as microwave-safe containers, however, should be fine. Anything that is not labeled as microwave-safe may leech chemicals into food while being microwaved, but there is no scientific evidence so far that these chemicals are carcinogenic.

Sugar promotes the growth of cancer cells

The Mayo Clinic states that cancer cells are not affected by sugar intake. Sugar does not speed up cancer cell growth when ingested and does not slow down cancer cell growth when deprived of it. There is evidence, however, that consuming large amounts sugar can increase the risk of certain cancers.

Good people do not get cancer

I found this myth listed by the Mayo Clinic a little hard to believe, but apparently, some people and certain cultures do believe that this disease is a punishment for bad thoughts or actions. Good thing this is not true because otherwise, I might be in trouble.

How To Spot Fake News

As a cancer survivor, I have vested interest in protecting myself from a re-occurrence of this devastating disease. I have developed a strategy for separating the fake from the true in news items about causes of cancer. I ask the following questions.

Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow

Who is the source of the information?

When I read a headline that appears fake on the Internet, I look at the source. If I am not familiar the name of the website, I will search its name on the Internet. A few pages may appear in the browser results that identify it as a fake news source or an unreliable source of Information.

Celebrity endorsement does not necessarily guarantee accurate health info. For example, a web search on Gwyneth Paltrow and her health website ‘Goop’ reveals that numerous medical experts dispute or discredit some of her website’s assertions. Other websites falsely state that a celebrity is endorsing their website or products in order to give themselves credibility. Famous people such as Dr. Oz often publicly refute false claims that they are endorsing other health websites.

What is the scientific evidence that backs up the claims?

Fake websites tend to cloak the lack of reliable research in sensational claims and dubious testimonials. I need proof from respected sources before I will believe certain news stories.

What do other news stories say about the claims?

For every fake news story there are probably several other articles on the Internet that dispute the false information. I find that researching the topics in question helps me discern the difference between true and fake news.

Why are they sharing this info?

Websites and media outlets often make money from advertising revenue. With some programs such as Google Adsense, the more views websites and the media get in highly competitive cyberspace, the more money they make. Websites and news sources may sometimes exaggerate, sensationalize, or mislead people to increase the number of visitors viewing their web pages.

Other websites also use scare tactics and outrageous claims about cancer causes to sell products such as herbal remedies and supplements. Reliable resources such as The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Cancer Prevention and Control page , and The Mayo Clinic, on the other hand, spread information on the known causes of this disease for the public good.

I suspect that some websites are also spreading fake news to create false fears and pandemonium. I am not sure what motivates them – perhaps they get a perverse pleasure out of scaring people.

True Causes of Cancer

While there are still unknowns when it comes to why certain people get cancer, there are some causes that been identified by the medical community:

  • Genetics, gene mutation
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Radiation exposure (i.e. the sun)
  • Viral and other infections
  • Smoking

Environmental factors such as pollution and chemical contamination have also been linked to cancer. A good example of these factors causing this disease was shown in the award-winning movie, Erin Brockovich. The story is a 2000 dramatization of the true story of how Erin Brockovich discovered a connection between high rates of cancer and illness in Hinkley, California and water contamination by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.

Concluding thoughts

I believe that people need to stop focusing on sensational fake news and turn to reliable sources of information on cancer causes and risk factors. There are many reputable sources for information in the U.S. in addition to those mentioned such as The American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. Other countries have similar organizations that focus on cancer education, prevention, and care.

As I a cancer survivor, I encourage everyone to learn everything they can about the causes of this awful disease and make whatever lifestyle changes are necessary to reduce their risk of getting cancer. Medical professionals and researchers are making incredible discoveries about possible causes and treatments everyday. Cancer survivors like me can have hope of living longer and avoiding recurrence of the condition.

I believe that people should not fear this illness and believe the latest rumor about how people get it. Instead, I encourage people to investigate news on this disease before clicking on the ‘share’ or ‘retweet’ button on social media.

References:

Belief in fake causes of cancer is rife, Cancer Research UK
Cancer causes: Popular myths about the causes of cancer, Mayo Clinic
Diseases and Conditions, Cancer, The Mayo Clinic
Cancer Prevention and Control, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Baking soda can cure breast cancer and mammograms cause it': Charity reveals 10 myths about the disease as it appoints first digital 'fake news' nurse to deal with growing problem, Daily Mail

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Carola Finch