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Cancer treatment myths: Any truth to these common beliefs?
Myth: Cancer is always painful.
Truth: Some cancers never cause pain.
For people who do experience cancer pain, especially people with advanced cancer, doctors have become more aware of the need to control such pain and have learned better ways to manage it. Although all pain may not be eliminated, it may be controlled so that it has little impact on your daily routine.
Myth: A needle biopsy can disturb cancer cells, causing them to travel to other parts of the body.
Truth: For most types of cancer, there's no conclusive evidence that needle biopsy — a procedure used to diagnose many types of cancer — causes cancer cells to spread.
There are exceptions, though, of which doctors and surgeons are aware. For instance, needle biopsy usually isn't used in diagnosing testicular cancer. Instead, if a doctor suspects testicular cancer, the testicle is removed.
Myth: Exposing a tumor to air during surgery causes cancer to spread.
Truth: Surgery can't cause cancer to spread. Don't delay or refuse treatment because of this myth. Surgically removing cancer is often the first and most important treatment.
Some people may believe this myth because they feel worse during recovery than they did before surgery. And if your surgeon discovers during surgery that your cancer is more advanced than first thought, you may believe the surgery caused more extensive cancer. But there is no evidence to support this.
Myth: Everyone with the same kind of cancer gets the same kind of treatment.
Truth: Your doctor tailors your treatment to you. What treatment you receive depends on where your cancer is, whether or how much it has spread, and how it's affecting your body functions and your general health.
More and more, cancer treatment is being tailored based on your genes. These genes, which you're born with, may show that your body processes certain chemotherapy treatments and drugs differently than someone else. Genetic testing on your cancer cells can also help guide your treatment.
Myth: Everyone who has cancer has to have treatment.
Truth: It's up to you whether or not you want to treat your cancer. You can decide this after consulting with your doctor and learning about your options.
A person with cancer might choose to forgo treatment if he or she has:
- A slow-growing cancer. Some people with cancer might not have any signs or symptoms. Lab tests might reveal that the cancer is growing very slowly. These people might choose to wait and watch the cancer. If it suddenly begins growing more quickly, treatment is always an option.
- Other medical conditions. If you have other significant illnesses, you may choose not to treat your cancer, as the cancer may not be the biggest threat to your health. This may be especially true in the case of a slow-growing cancer.
- A late-stage cancer. If the burden of treatment side effects outweighs the benefit that treatment can bring, you might choose not to be treated. But that doesn't mean your doctor will abandon you. Your doctor can still provide comfort measures, such as pain relief.
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- What you need to know about cancer. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/wyntk/overview/allpages. Accessed March 11, 2011.
- Cancer facts & figures 2010. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemiologysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-026238.pdf. Accessed March 11, 2011.
- Does surgery cause cancer to spread? American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/TreatmentTypes/Surgery/surgery-surgery-and-cancer-spread. Accessed March 11, 2011.
- Gansler T, et al. Sociodemographic determinants of cancer treatment health literacy. Cancer. 2005;104:653.