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It’s time to debunk common cancer myths

There are over 100 types of cancer, which afflict more than 10 million people globally each year, including nearly 40 000 women and 37 000 men in South Africa, as per the latest National Cancer Registry Report. Therefore, the importance of raising cancer awareness, which promotes increased screening and early detection, cannot be overstated.

A particularly important component of raising disease awareness is dispelling misleading information, or myths, and instead equipping individuals with accurate, science-based facts. It is important that all South Africans, irrespective of age, gender or ethnicity, are aware of the various cancers, the risk factors associated with the disease and the signs and symptoms that often present.

According to Dr Darren Katzman, head of Medical Affairs at Novartis South Africa, “There are many misconceptions regarding even the most common types of cancer which still exist today. Therefore, to support and create awareness about patients living with cancer, we aim to address three common cancer myths.”

  1. Myth: Cancer is contagious

Cancer cannot be spread from one person to another, or from an animal to a person. Cancer, unlike viruses such as COVID-19 or HIV, cannot be contracted from another person.

Cancer is a condition whereby the cells of the body mutate, resulting in uncontrolled growth and replication, potentially leading to malignancy. Different things can trigger these cellular mutations, such as chemicals, unhealthy lifestyle habits or genetic mutations that predispose a person to cancer. Some viruses, such as the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, can also increase the risk of developing cancer.

  1. Myth: Having relatives with cancer means you will likely get it, too

Some people have genetic mutations that increase their risk of cancer, but this does not mean they will definitely develop the disease. Other things, such as lifestyle and environmental factors, also influence cancer risk.

Most cancers are not caused by inherited mutations, but by changes in the genes that happen over time (acquired mutations). These changes are not passed on to your children. Cancers caused by acquired mutations are called sporadic cancers and are the most common kind. 

If you are worried about your family history of cancer, first talk to your family medical practitioner who may refer you for specialised consultation, should they deem it is necessary.

  1. Myth: Cancer is caused by injury

Cancer is not caused by injury, but sometimes an injury can reveal cancer at or close to the site of injury. For instance, a cancerous tumour can weaken a bone and make it more susceptible to breakage, subsequently leading to a cancer diagnosis.

Some injuries can also create lumps that are not cancerous. These can be bruises or scars that form through the natural process of tissue healing. These lumps do not raise the risk of cancer, but they may need medical attention if the discomfort associated with the lump persists.

Some cancers may go unnoticed for a long time before they are detected. Some of these cancers grow slowly and can be effectively treated by timely medical intervention. Conversely, other cancers are fast growing and can be more difficult to treat.

“There are plenty of helpful resources available that dispel misconceptions and provide valuable information about cancer,” says Dr Katzman. “It is, however, important to remember that online sources can never replace the advice of a qualified healthcare professional. 

“Consult your family medical practitioner or a cancer specialist if you are concerned about cancer. Screening is a powerful tool to detect cancer early and to aid prompt and effective medical management if warranted.”

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