Be a Cancer Myth Buster

Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN

One of the saddest days I ever experienced working in the cancer center was when a woman, newly diagnosed with breast cancer, broke down in tears and told me that she had caused her breast cancer. She further clarified that her sisters and mother had told her that you get cancer as a punishment for something you have done. Can you imagine this reaction from the very people you turn to for support at such a time? Unfortunately, misinformation or “myths”about cancer are everywhere. It is in those emails that get passed along to thousands, warning you not to freeze your water bottle or the tragic story told by your cousin Sally about her next door neighbor’s sister. You may be thinking, what can I do about it? A lot, actually. Become a cancer myth buster!

Cancer myths spread because people don’t know the facts, and don’t bother to check their facts before telling them to others. They don’t do it to be hurtful; in fact, they are usually trying to be helpful. Cousin Sally’s story may be the only thing she knows about chemotherapy, and so she wants to tell you about it. The reality is that every person’s cancer diagnosis, treatment course and side effects are different, and no whisper-down-the-lane story is relevant to your situation. Period. Feel free to inform Sally of this fact.

Let’s debunk some of the common myths. Perhaps you have heard that a tumor biopsy or surgery will cause the cancer to spread. This is a common misconception. Some websites claim that they have proof that this is true because some person had a biopsy and then his or her cancer spread, or that the cancer is able to spread through the needle hole used for the biopsy, along the tract of the needle. While it may be possible for cancer cells to “seed” along the needle tract, if a cancer diagnosis is determined from a biopsy, further therapy (surgery, radiation or chemotherapy) is performed to try and remove or kill any stray cells. An untreated cancer will spread throughout the body via the bloodstream or lymphatic system. This is the definition of cancer- it has the ability to spread, surgery or not.

I have no family history of ________ cancer, so I am not at risk. Absolutely false! Almost 80% of colorectal cancers and 70-80% of breast cancers are diagnosed in people with NO family history! There is no type of cancer that only runs in families and can’t occur at random

Cancer is contagious. False, false, false! You should have no fear of visiting, hugging or kissing a friend with cancer- in fact you should make a point to do so to show them your support! People receiving therapy are not toxic or dangerous to others (including children). The only exceptions to this are those receiving brachytherapy- a specific type of radiation where the radiation is implanted.

Now, to those emails that get me all worked up…

You get an email warning of something that causes cancer and asks that you pass it on to all your friends. STOP! Take a minute to check it out. You can use one of my two favorite places to myth-bust an email: and Or try a google search for the basic premise of the email, for instance “freezing plastic water bottles causes cancer”. I usually check all three places to confirm (and if I need more facts, I’ll do some library searching, but this is not necessary). Then I hit “reply to all” and straighten out the confusion. Ok, so maybe coming from an oncology nurse background, I get a little more leeway, but most people wonder if this stuff is true, and they just don’t know how to find out, so they will appreciate your help.

Now, go forth and bust some myths!

2 thoughts on “Be a Cancer Myth Buster

  1. Hello Carolyn,

    I don’t ask you to run this entire note. I’ve read other articles here in the past that you have done. I think there is a time-sensitive need for someone like you, who be as informative as possible in building a bridge of truth (to AVOID myth creation) between providers and patients about the risks for patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, and the novel 2009 H1N1 pandemic. I don’t want you to be a target or “caught in the middle”, but somebody needs to start communicating.

    Should early stage breast cancer patients (the majority of whom are at low risk for recurrence of breast cancer if they do only surgery and perhaps radiation and possibly hormonal treatment, but who will be considered to be one of the group with “an underlying medical problem” if they do immunosuppressive treatment), be counseled about the risk of dying from the novel H1N1 2009 pandemic flu if they are considering chemotherapy? Especially early stage breast cancer patients who are borderline for doing chemotherapy, as well as those hormone receptor positive patients who would not have an underlying medical problem and would be at low risk for dying from the novel H1N1 2009 pandemic flu if they were to choose ovarian ablation and hormonal treatment instead of chemotherapy? when their risks are being calculated for treatment and discussion with them, is that risk included in the statistical number they are given?

    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I do not think H1N1 should be a consideration when deciding what therapy to receive- no more than the regular seasonal flu would be. Other factors are much more important, such as size, pathology factors, Oncotype Dx scores and history, among others- these things should dictate treatment choices, not fear of the flu.
    However, all people receiving cancer therapy (or about to start) should be vaccinated against both the seasonal flu and H1N1. They should also have other members of their household get vaccinated. In light of your comment, I did a new blog post today on this topic- see that for more information. Hopefully it will clear up some of the myths!

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