Caring Currents

5 Myths About Cancer Prevention: Beware the Hype!

Last updated: Apr 08, 2009

I Want To Believe The Hype
Image by stallio used under the creative commons attribution share alike license.

The subhead to this post might be: Cancer cures or prevention strategies that don't work -- and might actually put you at risk for cancer!

I can't tell you how often lately I see dangerously wrong information about cancer flying around the airwaves in the form of a group e-mail, a comment on a blog post, or a twitter message (otherwise known as a "tweet"). Everyone seems to be on a mission to spread the word about the latest cancer prevention or detection strategy. Problem is, it's totally off-base. This phenomena really upsets me because by focusing on this wrong information -- or worse, spending good money pursuing crackpot tests and cures -- folks are less likely to buy or do the things that really do work.

So here are 5 recent headline-grabbers that got it way wrong:

  1. Marijuana prevents brain tumors. Boy, did this one make the rounds last week once NORML and other marijuana legalization groups got hold of it. But think about it -- if this were the case, all those BabyBoomer Deadheads, well... I won't say it. Nope, sorry. What this highly esoteric study actually showed is that THC, the active ingredient in marjuana, worked to kill off cells of gliobastoma muliforme when studied in mice, and in two patients whose brain tissue was extracted and treated outside of their bodies (i.e. in a petri dish). In other words, it has not been tested in actual human beings with brain tumors. Yet all the hyped up headlines have brain cancer patients rushing out to smoke pot in hopes of a self-cure, says Paul Graham Fisher of Stanford University's neuro-oncology department."Many brain cancer patients are already rolling a joint to treat themselves, but we're not really seeing brain tumors suddenly going away as a result. We clearly would've noticed if it had that effect." Meanwhile, the links between marijuana use and cancer continue to be very real. The same week, a very legitimate study came out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center showing that current active marijuana use raises a man's risk of testicular cancer.

  2. White wine is as good as red wine at preventing cancer. OMG, as they say, this one's so far off it's actually backward. What this study, also conducted at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, shows is that red wine is no better than white wine -- both are equally bad because they increase breast cancer risk. Here's a direct quote: "Women who consumed 14 or more drinks per week, regardless of the type (wine, liquor or beer), faced a 24 percent increase in breast cancer compared with non-drinkers." That means two drinks a day ups your risk of breast cancer by one fourth, ladies. And whether you prefer white, red, or a cold one on tap has nothing to do with it.

  3. Forget mammograms -- here's an easy new test for breast cancer. This one gets me steaming mad, as the e-mails and tweets I got all linked back to commercial sites that promote a controversial technique called thermography. All of which have lots of pretty pictures showing breast tumors highlighted in day-glo colors. But folks, according to the real, legitimate cancer organizations that study this stuff, thermography doesn't work. Direct quote from the American Cancer Society: "No study has ever shown that it is an effective screening tool for finding breast cancer early. It should not be used as a substitute for mammograms." So please, spread the word -- this kind of misinformation poses a serious danger. We don't want our mothers, wives,and sisters, much less ourselves thinking we're cleared for breast cancer when it's simply not true.

  4. Licorice prevents colon cancer. Personally, I hope this one proves true, so I have a justification for indulging in those old-fashioned black licorice candies; yum. Sadly, what really happened is some scientists at Vanderbilt University released research showing that glycyrrhizic acid, an ingredient in licorice, appears to inhibit an enzyme that can fuel the growth of bowel cancer. Don't get me wrong, the study results are real enough. But it was done in mice, so it's way too early to generalize that it'll work in humans. Plus, glycyrrhizic acid can cause all sorts of problems, such as raising blood pressure and dropping potassium levels so low they can trigger stroke, so the researchers now need to study those risks and try to develop a medicine that avoids them. What's most worrying to me, though, is that the links flying about the Internet and Twitter are to online newsletters published by the nutraceutical industry, which of course would love to get people rushing to health food store shelves to buy licorice supplements. Not so fast, folks. The way to make sure you don't get colon cancer? Be vigilant in having your routine colonoscopies.

  5. Alternative therapies cure cancer. This one arrived via a series of blog posts under the header of "Cancer Treatment News" via the site of the supplement seller ImmuneEnhance. Shame on you. ImmuneEnhance, according to their ads, sells "100 percent natural solutions to fight the side effects of chemotherapy." Well, that's all well and good. Yet their paid bloggers make promises such as "these various holistic therapies not only cure cancer but also get rid of other forms of diseases already present in the body," without any evidence to back up their claims; then twitter out "announcements" of their blog posts.

Like everything else in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are lots and lots of things you can do that really will prevent cancer. They're just not the quick fixes these marketeers promise.