A Closer Look
Debunking Cancer Myths, One Phone Call at a Time
When Melissa Hoard Silver picks up the phone at work, she never knows where the conversation will lead. Her calls come from people seeking information about cancer who dialed 1-800-4-CANCER. Although her primary job is to provide information and support, she also welcomes the opportunity to debunk some myths about the disease.
Some cancer myths – for example, that cancer is contagious -- continue to persist among the public.
"We give people reliable information about cancer at what is often a difficult time for them," said Silver, who has been with NCI's Cancer Information Service (CIS) for 4 years. "And as we support them, we can also share what the research says about a particular myth or question."
One of the most common myths that Silver encounters is the idea that cancer is contagious. In a recent call, a woman asked whether she could safely share a bathroom with a cousin who was coming to visit. "My cousin has cancer," the woman explained, saying that she did not want to "catch" the disease.
"We reassure people that no one can 'catch' cancer from another person," said Silver. "For people who are wondering if they can still hug their loved ones without getting cancer, this information can really put their minds at ease."
But Silver and the other information specialists with the CIS also tell people what the research shows about cancer and infectious agents, such as viruses. They explain that, although cancer is not contagious, infection with certain strains of the human papillomavirus can increase the risk of developing cervical and some other types of cancer, including some forms of head and neck cancer.
Myth Busting with Evidence
At the CIS Contact Center in Seattle, Washington, nearly 70 information specialists handle approximately 100,000 phone calls, e-mails, and live chat sessions annually. To give their clients the most relevant and up-to-date evidence, the staff draws on a variety of resources, including NCI Web sites and publications. (See sidebar.)
The information specialists address some cancer myths directly. For instance, a person may send an e-mail asking NCI to verify a suspicious claim on the Internet. Or a myth may emerge organically during an extended phone conversation.
"Cancer myths may not be the focus of the call, but we work hard to understand what else is going on with a person," said Silver. "The myth may be woven into the conversation, and we can pick up on these clues as we talk."
Just about every common cancer myth in the United States has been discussed by the CIS since the service was established in 1975. "Some of these myths have not changed much over the last few decades," said Randy Jacobs, an oncology nurse educator with the CIS for more than 20 years. "What's changed is the Internet."
Indeed, some cancer myths could live online forever. Consider an email falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins University that began to circulate in 2004 and made unsubstantiated claims about cancer. (For instance, the e-mail said that cancers feed on certain foods, including sugar.)
The message was a hoax, and Johns Hopkins issued a detailed statement responding to the claims. But 7 years later, people are still asking the CIS if eliminating sugar from the diet of a loved one will cause the person's cancer to go away.
Johns Hopkins noted in its statement that a poor diet and obesity can increase the risk of developing cancer. "However, there is no evidence that certain foods alter the environment of an existing cancer, at the cellular level, and cause it to either die or grow," the statement said. More recently, the CIS has fielded questions about a myth that all cancers are caused by a fungus and that baking soda is the cure.
"People ask what the research shows about a particular topic, but often there is no research related to the question at hand," said Susan Church, who responds to public inquiries at the CIS. "Sometimes, all we can do is explain what we know to date about the biology of cancer."
Another common belief is that having a biopsy or surgery for cancer will cause the disease to spread. According to NCI, this is a very rare occurrence because surgeons are aware of the potential risk and take precautions to prevent cancer cells from spreading during surgery.
Why so many people fear that surgery will spread cancer is not clear. The fears may be related to the fact that surgery can show that a person's cancer was farther along than anyone had realized prior to the surgery. But, although the most likely explanation for this is the limitations of clinical exams and detection tools, some people mistakenly blame the surgery itself.
"This has been a consistent belief over the past 20 years," said Laura Rankin, a resource specialist with the CIS. "Many people will tell us that my mother had surgery, and the cancer was everywhere. They blame surgery."
For some people, added Deborah Pearson, an NCI public health advisor, "it can be difficult to grasp the idea that a person was living with an advanced cancer for a long period of time without it causing problems sooner."
Scientific evidence is perhaps the best tool for combating myths. A decade ago, the CIS responded to many questions about shark cartilage as a cancer cure. In the years since, different extracts of shark cartilage were developed as drugs and tested in clinical trials. Unfortunately, these extracts did not help patients with breast, colon, or lung cancer.
"Having the information from the clinical trials—the evidence—does seem to make a difference," said Pearson. "The results have been out there, and people just know that shark cartilage is not an effective treatment for cancer." (Information about cartilage and cancer is available, for example, in NCI's comprehensive cancer database, known as PDQ.)
Debunking Cancer Myths Online
Melissa Hoard Silver answers callers at NCI's Contact Center located at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington
Although the Internet has created new ways to spread myths about cancer, it also has credible information debunking these myths. NCI has published fact sheets about cancer myths and how to evaluate information on the Internet, for instance.
In addition, the American Cancer Society, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and Johns Hopkins, among others, have Web sites about cancer myths. (See sidebar.)
"Many of the myths may speak to people's lack of knowledge about health in general and fears about cancer in particular," said Judy Petersen, an oncology nurse educator with the CIS. "We realize there are many unknowns about the disease, and people may be inclined to believe things that are not true."
In her phone conversations, Silver tries to "meet people where they are." If someone raises a question about a myth, she'll often say, "That's a great question—it's a common question," and then direct the person to helpful information.
"We're just happy to help our callers in any way that we can," she added.
—Edward R. Winstead
NCI's Cancer Information Service: Providing Information and Assistance Nationwide