Macmillan Cancer Support helps dispel some of the most common misconceptions about cancer
By Izzy Capelin
Despite someone being diagnosed with cancer every two minutes in the UK, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the life-changing disease. We reached out to Macmillan Cancer Support to help dispel the most common, and in some ways dangerous, cancer myths.
Myth 1: A cancer patients’ attitude will determine their prognosis
There has been a lot of controversy lately over the power positive thinking can have over your health, especially when you have a serious illness. Richard Elworthy, Macmillan Information Development Nurse, says:
“Your cancer prognosis depends on a range of factors such as what type of cancer you have, how much it has spread and how quickly it is growing. A patient who’s diagnosed early has a greater chance of survival because it’s likely that the cancer hasn’t had the chance to get too big or spread. Your age and general health before cancer, and how you respond to treatment will have an impact too.”
Elworthy says that while some cancer patients say having a positive attitude helps them when coping with cancer, it is not helpful to imply that someone’s prognosis is dependent on this. He says:
“Cancer and its treatment can be a very scary experience. People can feel helpless and too tired to be positive all of the time, but this doesn’t mean they can’t survive their disease. A positive attitude means different things to different people and there should be no pressure on anyone to feel or act in a certain way.”
Myth 2: You’ll be fine once you’ve recovered from cancer
When someone finds out they’re in remission or that they’re ‘cancer-free’, it’s an undeniable cause for celebration, but that doesn’t mean their life simply goes back to the way it had been before their diagnosis.
“When you have had cancer, feelings and emotions can come and go quickly. Some people may feel fine but others may find it very difficult to adjust to life after cancer treatment. Cancer can be life-changing, and many people feel that things will never be the same again. You don’t stop feeling the physical or emotional effects of cancer just because you have finished treatment. If your body has changed because of treatment, the way you feel about yourself may also be affected.”
Elworthy also explains that some cancer patients on Macmillan’s online community say they even have ‘survivor’s guilt’. This is particularly the case when someone has seen friends die from cancer. As Susan, one of the online community users explains:
“Seven people in my extended family have been diagnosed in the last five years including me and four of them are dead. I feel like we’ve all be lined up against a wall and someone is playing Russian Roulette with us. Like someone’s just pointed a gun at my head and the man next to me got shot. I should be so happy I am in remission but all I feel is sick with guilt that I’m alive and they aren’t. What makes me so special?”
Cancer survivors are faced with a number of challenges, one of them being the vast rainbow of emotions they could experience. Loneliness, relief, anger, disbelief are just some of the feelings that may come and go. Everyone will respond differently, so it’s vital they receive the support they need, even after their treatment is over. Support is available if you need help dealing with physical, practical, financial or emotional issues following cancer, please ask your doctor or nurse for advice on where to get it.
Myth 3: You will definitely get cancer if someone in your family has had it
The nurses on the Macmillan Support Line often hear from people who are concerned over their family history of cancer. It’s true that some cancers, including breast, ovarian, bowel and prostate, can have a genetic link, but only about 5% are associated with a family history. Elworthy says:
“There are lots of different risk factors for cancer, including age, lifestyle, diet, environmental and occupational factors, even some viruses. We often share many of these risk factors with our family members, which may explain why some types of cancer appear to run in families. We can help to reduce our risk of developing some cancers by taking positive steps to change our lifestyles such as regular exercise, eating healthily, taking care in the sun and not smoking.”
There is lots of information about the causes of cancer on Macmillan’s website and the nurses on their support line can answer any questions you might have about cancer risk and genetics.
The number of people who have survived five or more years since diagnosis has increased by over 21% between 2010 and 2015
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Myth 4: Cancer is a death sentence
Attitudes to cancer have changed dramatically over the past decades. Back in the 60s, cancer was the second leading cause of death (after heart disease) and people knew it was a killer. Macmillan’s oldest nurse Sally Jorden, who at 71 has spent 54 years treating patients, remembers:
“No one talked about cancer. If a patient was diagnosed, their relatives begged us not to tell them. Of course, we had to tell the patient the truth but we understood their loved ones were trying to shield them from what was considered a death sentence.”
Today, having cancer doesn’t simply mean you will die. The number of people who have survived five or more years since diagnosis has increased by over 260,000 (or 21%) in the five years to 2015. Different types of cancer will come with different mortality rates based on how aggressive and easily treatable it is. For instance, survival rate for testicular cancer in the UK can be up to 98% while pancreatic cancer can be as low as 1%.
It’s essential that those who have had cancer, or are living with it, get the support they need to have a good quality of life, regardless of their prognosis. Those who do have a terminal diagnosis should be given the practical support to be able to die in a place of their choice, such as at home, and help them come to terms with what’s going to happen.
Myth 5: You must rest when you have cancer
Your body goes through a lot when you have cancer; not only from the impact of the disease itself and the intense treatments, but also the emotional stress. However, the idea that cancer patients should avoid any kind of physical exertion could be doing them more harm than good. Jo Foster, who leads Macmillan’s physical activity programme, says:
“It is a common misconception that when you have cancer, you need rest. We now know that if physical activity was a drug, it would be a wonder drug. Moving more, both during and after cancer treatment, can help with the side effects of treatment like fatigue and bone thinning. It can also help with other long term conditions like heart disease, and there is emerging evidence that for some cancers being physically active may slow the spread of it or even reduce the chance of it coming back. Most importantly people tell us that it’s something that they can do for themselves in a time when all control feels taken away from them.”
All movement counts, and Foster says it’s important that people who have had cancer try an activity they enjoy, build it up gradually, and if possible, be active with friends and family. If you have any concerns, especially if you haven’t been active before or for a long time, Macmillan can provide you with help and support. You can order a guide to becoming more active, a cancer and physical activity booklet and exercise DVD.