By Dr. Andrew Odhiambo – Consultant Physician & Medical Oncologist
Many Kenyans have come to believe over time popular ideas about how cancer begins, grows and how it spreads. Although many of these may be scientifically incorrect, they always seem to make sense to the common ‘’mwananchi’’ because they are rooted very old and outdated theories and beliefs. These wrong ideas often lead to wrong perception, unnecessary worry and even hinder proper diagnosis, treatment and prevention of many cancers. As one of the very few oncologists in Kenya, I sometimes struggle and feel bad when I see misinformed Kenyans stand by these beliefs and end up compromising their care. This article is my personal stand on some of these myths and misconception about cancer in Kenya. I hope to shed light on some on the scientific evidence-based information out there about these myths and misconceptions.
1. Cancer Is A Death Sentence
I don’t believe so. Cancer is not a death sentence. I have walked the journey with many cancer patients and not all of them have had to die. Today, over 40,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in Kenya. 27,000 of these will die within the same year. Cancer indeed kills many Kenyans, but there are those who live. The probability of dying from cancer is more in African countries because of poverty, late diagnosis and inadequate cancer care. Different cancers behave differently. The stage that you are diagnosed with your cancer will in most instances determine how long you will live. Majority of cancers that are caught early are curable. What determines whether a patient dies or lives from cancer depends on several factors like the type of cancer, whether it is fast or slow growing, whether it has spread to other parts of the body or not and whether effective treatment is available for these cancers as well as the patients’ overall state of health and more. There are certain cancers like cancer of the brain and certain blood system cancer that are very deadly whereas their certain cancers that people can live with for over 20-30 years and die from other causes.
2. Cancer Is Contagious
Generally, the answer to this is no. Cancer is not contagious because it does not spread from one person to another. The only known way cancer can spread from one person to another is through organ transplantation. Organ transplantation is very not common in Kenya other than kidney transplant and it is a general rule that patients with cancer are not considered to be donors for such procedures. So, it is not possible for you to transmit cancer to somebody else by touching them, through sex, through sharing beds or utensils. Having said that, there are certain risk factors that maybe transmissible from one person to another. The best example is the human papilloma virus (HPV) which is responsible for cervical cancer as well as cancers affecting the oral cavity and the anus.
3. Eating Sugar Makes My Cancer Grow
I don’t believe so. Although research may have shown that cancer cells feed on sugar more than normal cells, there have been no well conducted scientific studies to-date that have proven this association. There are over 100 different types of cancer and each of them behave different from one another. It is not true that eating sugar will make your cancer worse. Stopping or reducing sugar, doesn’t mean that your cancer may shrink or even disappear. The only link between high sugar and cancer is that high sugar diets may promote obesity and overweight which may be linked to several types of cancers particularly cancer of the kidney, uterus, colon ovary and prostate just to mention but a few.
4. Tumour Biopsy Or Cancer Surgery Makes Your Cancer Spread
The truth is that the real chance of cancer spreading due to surgery or biopsy is extremely low. You need a skilled surgeon who carries out careful procedures and makes sure that he doesn’t spill cancer cells from one part of the body to another. To date, most effective treatment from any solid tumour is surgery. The only way of making an accurate diagnosis of cancer is through getting a biopsy. If your surgery is done carelessly and certain organs for example the gall bladder and other internal organs are exposed during surgery then there might be a remote chance and the cancer might be spread but as a general rule the rate of this spread is extremely low. The reason many Kenyans believe that this is true is that many a times patients may succumb a few weeks or months after surgery and they believe that is usually linked to the surgery when in real sense the death of this patients may have as well occurred with or without the surgery.
5. All Cancer Chemotherapy Will Make Your Hair Fall Off
This is not true. Whereas most chemotherapies used for common cancers like breast and cervical cancer may cause hair to fall off. There are certain newer types of chemotherapies that we use for colon cancer and most recently the targeted agency immunotherapy is not associated with hair loss or falling.
6. Mobile Phones Cause Cancer
According to the best of my knowledge, there has been no well conducted studies so far that has proven this myth. There are several small studies may have shown this association, but it is not proven to date that cell phones may cause genetic mutation or even damage the genes. Cell phones have not been shown to cause any significant damage to the human gene.
7. Antiperspirant Deodorants Cause Breast Cancer
The answer is no. To the best of my knowledge most of the well conducted studies have not found any strong link to show that the chemical found in these substances causes any cancerous changes in the breast.
8. There Are Herbal Products That Cure Cancer
My straight answer is no. Though they may have been studies that suggest that some of the alternative therapy including some herbs can cure certain cancers or even alleviate the side effects of treatments. There have been no well conducted randomized controlled trials that have shown that herbal treatment are effective towards treating cancer. In fact, some herbal product cause damage to the liver and other internal organs and may even interrupt with chemotherapy and radiotherapy and cause more harm to patients. I encourage most of my patients to tell their doctors what supplements or herbs they are taking so that we can be able to plan their treatment effectively and avoid unnecessary damage.
9. If Someone In My Family Has Cancer, Then I Am Likely To Get It
Not necessarily. Many Kenyans imagine that genetic disorders are always transmitted from one member of the family to another. The truth is only 5-10% of most cancers are actually inherited from one’s parents. In families where, inherited genetic mutation are found many family members, often develop same type of cancers and these cancers are usually termed as family or hereditary. And even if these hereditary cancers may be found in the family it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are familial. Majority of cancers are caused by sporadic mutations which are acquired throughout once life and these mutations are random and are usually associated with environmental factors such as tobacco smoke, radiation, and other chemical exposure.
10. If No One In My Family Has Ever Had Cancer, Then I Will Not Get It And My Risk Is Low
Actually, the answer is no, 40-50% of all cancers we are not able to find a link in the family and truth be told, most of the time we are not able to find a single attributable risk factor to a persons’ cancer. Case in point is breast cancer. Where 2 out of 3 women diagnosed with breast cancer today we are not able to identify any of the traditional risk factors that are known. So, the fact that no one in your family has cancer, doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot get cancer and doesn’t mean that your risk is low. Where applicable, we encourage screening for all patients. Information is power. Ignorance only feeds more fear and stigma. For more insights and queries you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me at @odhis1.