The 6 Most Unhelpful Myths About Cancer, And How You Can Change Them

MYTH #1 – Cancer is rare.

In fact, cancer is not rare. The odds of getting cancer in your lifetime are the same as being born a boy – latest statistics state one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.* When every second person gets something, that something isn’t rare.

Why this myth is unhelpful – Whilst ever we believe we have a low chance of having a particular thing happening to us, the more unlikely we are to change our behaviours, or change our attitude towards it. However, the most effective way to prevent cancer, and to help those who have it now, is to change our behaviours and attitudes.

Be the change – Acknowledge cancer is no longer a rare occurrence in our society, and perhaps re-examine your attitudes towards your health and well-being in light of this information. Also, think about the way you view people who find themselves diagnosed with cancer, and whether those perceptions are based on the reality – cancer is commonplace and curable – or based on the myth – cancer is rare, and always fatal.


MYTH #2 – Cancer will kill you.

For most people, a cancer diagnosis no longer means certain death. Once, a cancer diagnosis was rare, and death was likely. Now, thanks to increased awareness, better health education, high-tech research and improved treatments, it’s cancer fatalities which are becoming rarer and rarer.

Why this myth is unhelpful – A morbid fear of cancer – and anxiety about possible outcomes – can cause as much, if not more, distress for the cancer-diagnosed person, their friends and family than the actual disease, symptoms or treatment. This pervading fear of dying of cancer can also prevent people investigating troubling symptoms and warning signs, despite the fact early diagnosis of cancer dramatically improves treatment outcomes.

Be the change Whilst cancer may lead to an untimely and tragic demise, a diagnosis in no way spells certain death. It simply isn’t true a cancer diagnosis means you will die of cancer. Please, have symptoms or signs checked earlier rather than later. For those troubled by fearful and anxious thoughts after a diagnosis, counselling or support is available via your GP, a social worker or local cancer charity. Call the Cancer Council NSW on 13 11 20 (within Australia) or contact a cancer support service or counsellor in your area.


MYTH #3 – Cancer is smarter then we are.

Cancer cells are not smarter than us – it’s just they don’t know when enough is enough. Even a virus is well aware if its host dies, it dies too, and tries to escape well in advance. Compare this rudimentary intelligence with that of cancer cells. No, cancer isn’t clever, or intelligent. It’s just plain old, garden-variety dumb.

We’ve circulated this myth which says cancer has some kind of mind of its own. Certainly, when it defies treatment, it can seem like it’s outwitting us. But it isn’t.

Why this myth is unhelpful – When we have cancer, believing the cancer has a life of it’s own can leave us feeling our body is “out to get us”. This can lend itself to a base distrust of our body, undermining our confidence in our ability to heal or “outwit” the cancer at a time when we can be feeling physically and mentally diminished, weak and vulnerable.

Cancer cells are not smarter than people are – they simply lost the switch which tells them when to turn off. Very clever people continue to work to find out the reasons why, and are also finding ways to turn off those cells or at the very least, think of new ways to get them the hell outta there before they do too much damage.

Be the changeCancer is a sign something in our body is unbalanced and needs immediate attention. It’s when we need to direct our most tender care and compassion towards our body, not treat it with disdain or distrust because it “let us down” or “tried to kill us”.

Rather than making our body the object of anger and suspicion, instead lavish it with tender nurture and respect. You wouldn’t harshly berate a sick child. Affirming the body as able to heal and worthy of ours and others care will both empower and soothe us in a time when we need it the very most.


MYTH #4 – Cancer is evil.

We’ve interpreted cancer’s mindless advance through the body as a kind of cunning malevolence, probably because this has helped us see it as “not part of us” or as “the enemy”. However, in reality cancer is merely cells doing what cells do best – multiplying, over and over. Cancer has no mind of it’s own, and has no will or intent towards us.

Why this myth is unhelpful – The mindless advance of cancer can make us think it has some mystical force attached to it.  Imagining ourselves “fighting”against cancer can help us feel strong, and as if we’re “doing something” about the cancer. But metaphors of evil and malevolence can also be incredibly emotionally and mentally debilitating and anxiety producing, and can feed intense feelings of victimisation and helplessness.

Be the changeInstead of focusing on the negative attributes – real, or imagined – of the cancer, focus always on the positive attributes of the person. Use metaphors which depict cancer as “less than” everything the person with cancer is, instead of setting them up against cancer in a mental conflict they may feel unprepared or unwilling to engage in.


MYTH #5 – Cancer is a failure or punishment.

People often say things like “God is trying to teach you something” or “The Universe has a lesson in this for you” when someone is diagnosed with cancer, but in reality, few people really believe this. More often its simply something to say when they don’t really know what else to say. However, some folks really do secretly suspect the person with cancer has done “something wrong” somewhere, taken a “wrong turn” in life, or caused their own cancer because of bad thoughts or feelings. The person themselves may feel this is true.

Why this myth is unhelpful – Whenever we believe cancer has occurred because of a particular shortcoming or behaviour on the part of the person who had it – whether it’s a real cause, like smoking, or a more esoteric one, like unforgiveness – we’ll behave or speak in a way (perhaps even inadvertently) which expresses that judgement. Feeling shame because of something we did we think may have caused the cancer will evoke a sense of condemnation and guilt, and perhaps even resignation about the cancer. Whilst cancer can happen because of things we do or do not do, cancer itself is not a failure or punishment. Even if cancer happened because of something a person did or failed to do, no one ever “deserves” it, nor our judgement about why they have it.

Be the change – Ascribing attributes of justice or “deservedness” to cancer is giving it way more power than it deserves – cancer is actually amoral. Instead of wondering why cancer came in the first place, focus on instilling hope in the possibility of a healed, healthy future. Walk beside them in their journey, helping them direct their energy into people and activities which will foster good health, emotionally and relationally, as well as physically .


MYTH #6 – Cancer is the winner.

All those metaphors we use around cancer of battles and fights, heroes and victims, inevitably leads us to some less than conducive images of the outcomes.

Why this myth is unhelpful – Every time we say someone “lost their battle with cancer”, we intimate that between the two of them, cancer was the better and the stronger. But how did cancer win when someone dies? Did the cancer not die with them? And what family can cancer leave behind? What wonderful glory trail of paths blazed, adventures enjoyed or stories written did the cancer forge for future generations? What good memories, smiles and laughter did it and will it continue to inspire? How does cancer outshine us, in life, or in death? How can cancer ever win?

Be the change. We can change the language we use around cancer. We can stop talking about it as if it ever wins, even when someone passes away. People do not “lose their battle” with cancer – they die, and when they do the cancer dies with them. We do not grieve the cancer, nor should we.  The cancer ought never outshine the person we loved in life, nor be exalted as the victor over them when they pass away.WCD_Logo_RGB_2012

Unlike the magnificent human being who we loved, and unfortunately, tragically lost, cancer leaves no legacy worth remembering, and we dishonor all our loved ones amazing achievements in life when we speak of cancer as having bettered or conquered them.

Cancer does not deserve the credit we give it when we speak of it this way. Instead say “They died, after having lived a wonderful life, having loved many and achieved much. They died of cancer, but cancer did not win. ”

Feb. 4th is World Cancer Day




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