10 myths about cancer

EVIDENCE MEDICINE GOES FORWARD IN SEVEN MILLION STEPS , and almost everyone has access to websites with correct information – but the word “cancer” remains intimidating. Many tumors have long ceased to be a death sentence, especially in the case of early diagnosis. Nevertheless, cancer is surrounded by a huge number of myths, conjectures and horror stories – and we tried to refute a dozen of them.

We’ve got a cancer epidemic right now

Indeed, in developed countries, oncological diseases occupy one of the first places among the causes of death of the population, catching up only with cardiovascular diseases or even ahead of them. At the same time, cancer is still a rather rare disease, different types of which are diagnosed only in several tens of 100 thousand people a year. The catch is that a tumor develops due to a series of genetic mutations in a single cell – these mutations lead to its non-stop division, bypassing the body’s stop signals.    

The cells become resistant to apoptosis (this is the name of their “programmed” death), begin to attract new blood vessels to feed the tumor , and also penetrate into other organs and tissues – they metastasize. This often takes years and decades. According to statistics , 77% of people with malignant tumors develop them after 55 years. It is not surprising that in countries where the vast majority of people are experiencing this threshold, oncology is widespread. 

Previously, people did not get cancer 

The term “cancer” appeared in the fifth century BC thanks to Hippocrates. Traces of malignant tumors at different times were also found in the mummies of Ancient Egypt , Peru and Chile , in the bones of the ancient Romans , in medieval cemeteries in England and Portugal . King Ferdinand I of Naples five hundred years ago died of advanced colon cancer , and a noble Scythian warrior, whose rich tomb was found in 2001 on the territory of the modern Republic of Tuva, had prostate cancer .           

In other words, cancer has been with people for a long time, and even our distant ancestors did not escape it. On the only known remains of a Kanam man (Homo kanamensis) and another unnamed protohuman , signs of a malignant tumor of bone tissue – osteosarcoma – were found . By the most conservative estimates, about 200 cases of fossil cancer have been described . It is worth making an allowance for the fact that many remains are only partially preserved, and targeted searches for oncological diseases in them are not even now.     

People used to have cancer less often

It is difficult to confirm or deny this point impartially. In addition to the fact that medical advances have allowed people to live to see cancer, the massive spread of smoking and obesity also did not improve the situation. But it cannot be argued that cancer was extremely rare in the past. The English paleontologist Tony Waldron studied the death register for 1901-1905 and found that the probability of detecting signs of cancer in the bones of men is 0-2%, and in women – 4-7%. At the same time, only primary bone tumors can be found in the bones – this is less than 0.2% of all cancers, as well as metastases of some other types of cancer. Soft tissue tumors in remains, from which only the skeleton has survived, are usually no longer detectable.    

Later, scientists from Munich received the same results : with the help of special equipment, they found five cases of cancer among 905 skeletons in Egyptian necropolises and thirteen cases in 2547 remains in a medieval cemetery in Germany. An interesting conclusion suggests itself: although life in Ancient Egypt and medieval Europe was different, people were sick with cancer in the same way . 

Cancer got younger

In terms of statistics, this is true: according to a recent report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, over the past twenty years, their prevalence in children has increased by 13%. But everything is not as simple as it seems – and, fortunately, cancer in children remains an extremely rare disease (about 14 cases per 100 thousand children a year).   

Scientists tend to believe that this increase in prevalence is primarily the effect of more accurate diagnosis and high awareness. Perhaps in the future, the numbers will increase even more: today’s data covers 100% of children in North America and Europe and only 5% of Africa and Asia. In poorer countries, childhood cancer is likely simply not diagnosed.

Wild animals don’t get cancer 

All animals are sick with cancer: wild, domestic, and especially laboratory ones. Most often, tumors are diagnosed in domestic animals – there are many of them and they undergo veterinary control. In addition, it is they who often become victims of closely related crosses, which increase the likelihood of passing on defective genes to offspring. Wild animals also have cancer. The population of Tasmanian devils – marsupial mammals from Australia – is on the verge of extinction, because their cancer has evolved and is able to spread through bites.     

The myth that there are animals that do not get cancer has been massively disseminated twice. The first time – when scientists noticed that the cartilage tissue does not contain blood vessels, and decided that it contains some substances that inhibit their growth. The most important feature of malignant tumors is the formation of new blood vessels, so scientists decided to study the corresponding properties of cartilage tissue. True, they were outstripped by charlatans who flooded the market with shark tablets: the shark’s skeleton consists exclusively of cartilage.   

The scientific community fell victim to the myth for the second time. The attention was attracted by naked mole rats – small rodents that have a phenomenal lifespan of up to thirty years. On this wave, Russian scientists even received a prestigious award for disclosing the mechanism of resistance of naked mole rats to cancer, but a couple of years later, cancer was found in these rodents.     

Cancer can get infected

The overwhelmingly seductive theory that cancer is an infectious disease cost the US National Cancer Institute hundreds of millions of dollars in almost wasted dollars in the 1960s. In fact, it is now known that there are viruses that can provoke the development of certain types of cancer : the human papillomavirus causes cancer of the cervix , anus, penis and pharynx, hepatitis C virus – liver cancer, and the Epstein-Barr virus – Burkitt’s lymphoma.  

People can only get cancer through direct transfer of tumor cells from donor to recipient – for example, during organ transplantation. True, two-thirds of even such cases end with the immune system of the new host killing the planted tumor.  

The main cause of cancer is chemical carcinogens

At one time, bacteriologist Bruce Ames invented a test that allows you to study the effect of chemicals on the genetic apparatus using bacteria, that is, to determine the carcinogenicity of these substances. The talk about chemical carcinogens caused a great public outcry and affected all industries. True, later Ames partially rehabilitated artificial chemical compounds: it turned out that natural substances can have the same properties. Of the 28 natural substances that a cup of coffee contains, 19 are plant carcinogens. True, they can cause the development of a tumor only in huge quantities, and this is possible only in laboratory animals.    

Chemical carcinogens are justified by the history of the American Pripyat – the town of Love Canal , built on a dump of toxic waste. For thirty years of retrospective research , no outbreaks of cancer were found in former residents. The residents and liquidators of Chernobyl also did not find anything , except for the more frequent thyroid cancer in children and adolescents: its development was associated with food contamination with radioactive iodine in the first months after the disaster.      

In fact, the main carcinogens have long been known – they are ultraviolet radiation, components of cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Other important risk factors are obesity and certain infections. Chronic exposure to cigarette smoke and other lifestyle elements are far more important than any parabens in cosmetics, which have only been shown to be carcinogenic in the laboratory.  

It is not profitable for pharmaceutical companies to invent a cure for cancer 

It is impossible to find a single cure for cancer, if only because cancer is the general name for a huge group of diseases. Moreover, breast cancer alone has hundreds of different diseases. Cancer is individual, just like the individual organism of each individual, like fingerprints . The current trend in oncology is the so-called precision medicine, which allows you to select a personal medicine or treatment regimen for each patient based on certain biomarkers. 

Billions of dollars are invested in drug development, and pharmaceutical companies still benefit from it – in terms of both finances and reputation. For many cancers, effective treatments already exist – but for the reasons outlined above, they are not suitable for all. 

We have made no progress in cancer treatment  

Over the past ten to twenty years, the overall cancer mortality rate in various age groups has decreased by 1% every year – and this trend is observed all over the world. The exception was lung cancer in women – the result of the 1970s fashion for “female” cigarettes, and liver cancer – the result of the massive spread of hepatitis C virus infection.   

Cancer cannot be defeated

Of course, it is better to warn, not win. Cancer prevention includes a number of simple requirements : it is necessary to exclude smoking, reduce alcohol and red meat consumption, eat enough vegetables and fruits, monitor body weight, be physically active and protect the skin from sunburn. 

In the early stages, cancer is curable – however, and it is difficult to identify it, since it does not manifest itself in any way. On the website of the Cancer Prevention Foundation, you can get tested on personal risks and understand when to contact oncologists. Cancer at a later stage is often impossible to cure, but in many cases, treatment can contain its progression. Oncological diseases become chronic, and people live with them for decades – so in a certain sense we have defeated cancer.

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