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Cancer facts and fallacies

Friday, October 5, 2012

A recent e-mail claiming that it was a "CANCER UPDATE FROM JOHN HOPKINS" has turned out to be another Internet hoax.

The hoax described properties of cancer cells and suggests ways of preventing cancer, and another hoax has been circulating since 2004 regarding plastic containers, bottles and a possible link to cancer.

The gist of the viral e-mail is that cancer therapies of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy do not work against the disease and people should instead choose a variety of dietary strategies.

According to experts from Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, traditional therapies do work, and while some treatments work for awhile and then stop working, or some cancers are more difficult to cure than others, those problems are the focus of ongoing research.

The e-mails have become such a problem that Johns Hopkins, National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society have posted warnings on their web sites about them.

Also, Johns Hopkins has gone through each statement in the email hoax and provide real responses from their experts:

* Everyone has cancer cells -- False.

According to Luis Diaz, a clinician-scientist in Ludwig Center for Cancer Genetics, cancer is a genetic disease resulting from a variety of mutations and alterations either inherited from our parents or, more commonly, acquired over time due to environmental exposures and behaviors, such as smoking and poor diet.

Among the trillions of cells in the human body, inevitably everyone has some abnormal or atypical cells that possess some of the characteristics of cancer cells, but most resolve themselves and never result in cancer, says Diaz.

There is no single or standard test for cancer. There are ways to screen for certain cancers with tests such as colonoscopy for colon cancer, mammography for breast cancer, PSA for prostate cancer, and the Pap smear for cervical cancer, and these tests can detect cancers in a very early and curable stage. For many cancers, there currently are no screening tests, and they are diagnosed when they begin to cause symptoms.

But a team of their breast cancer researchers has developed a method that could make it possible to detect breast cancer from the DNA contained in a single drop of blood.

* A strong immune system destroys cancer -- False

The human immune system simply does not recognize cancer, and the cell has learned to disguise itself to the immune system as a normal, healthy cell. While cells infected with viruses or bacteria send out danger signals setting the immune system in action, cancer cells do not.

When it comes to cancer and the immune system, it is not a matter of strong or weak as the fictional report contends, but rather an issue of recognition. By deciphering the methods cancer cells use to make them invisible to the immune system, cancer vaccines have been developed that have successfully triggered immune reactions against prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, leukemia, and multiple myeloma.

* Cancer is caused by nutritional deficiencies and supplements will correct them -- False

While dietary habits and lifestyle choices, such as smoking, can contribute to the development of many human cancers, experts recommend a balanced diet (as a way of reducing cancer risk. As for supplements, experts point out that while they may help mediate vitamin deficiencies, taking doses above what the body needs provides no added benefit.

* Chemotherapy and radiation therapy harms normal cells, surgery causes cancer to spread -- False.

The first line of treatment for many types of cancer is surgery and does not cause cancer to spread. Instead, cancers spread to other tissues and organs as a tumor progresses and cancer cells break away from the original tumor and travel through the bloodstream to other body sites.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy kills cancer cells with remarkable selectivity and while there are some temporary and reversible side effects common to cancer therapies, such as hair loss and low blood counts, limiting and managing those side effects is an integral part of treatment.

* Cancers feed on certain foods -- False.

According to Johns Hopkins experts, a poor diet and obesity associated with a poor diet is a risk factor for the development of cancer, but 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 premise is that cancer cells feed on certain foods, and if a person refrains from eating these foods, the cancer will die. Eating less meat, while a good choice for cancer prevention, does not free up enzymes to attack cancer cells.

Instead, moderation is key, as part of a balanced diet, sugar, salt, milk, coffee, tea, meat, and chocolate are all safe choices, she says. The real concern with many of these, particularly sugar, is that it adds calories to a diet and can lead to obesity -- is a major risk factor for cancer.

A balanced nutritious diet, healthy weight, physical activity, and avoiding alcoholic drinks may prevent as many as 1/3 of all cancers.

* Cancer is a disease of mind, body, and spirit -- False.

Cancer is a disease caused by genetic alterations, which occur through our own behaviors -- cigarette smoking, a poor and unbalanced diet, virus exposures, and sunburns.

How stress, faith, and other factors influence this is largely unknown, but there is no evidence, however, that a person prevents or causes cancer based on his or her state of mind.

* Oxygen Kills Cancer Cells -- False.

Regular exercise is recommended as a part of any healthy lifestyle, but there is no evidence that breathing deeply or receiving oxygen therapy prevents cancer.

On its web site, the American Cancer Society includes the following statement about oxygen therapy, "Available scientific evidence does not support claims that putting oxygen-releasing chemicals into a person's body is effective in treating cancer. It may even be dangerous. There have been reports of patient deaths from this method."

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