Debunking Scary Myths About Cancer

Learning that you or someone you love has cancer can be scary. That’s why it’s important to know the facts. Here, Jan Rothman, MD, medical oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, debunks some of the common scary myths people believe about cancer.

Does Having Cancer Always Mean You’re Going to Die?

No, Dr. Rothman says — cancer is not always fatal. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to diagnosis, treatment, and health outcomes.

The risk of dying from cancer in the U.S. has dropped during the last three decades. The highest annual cancer death rate for men and women combined was 215 per 100,000 people in 1991. By 2019, the annual death rate dropped 32% to 146 per 100,000.

People with cancer are living longer thanks to improvements in technology that lead to earlier diagnosis, Dr. Rothman says.

He also credits more personalized treatments, like targeted therapy. “These oral drugs are targeted against a person’s own unique DNA,” he says. “Immunotherapy has been expanded to effectively treat many different types of cancer. This often translates into tremendous progress and reshapes a patient’s lifespan.”

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Can You Catch Cancer?

No, cancer isn’t passed from person to person (contagious), Dr. Rothman says. But some contagious viruses can increase your risk of developing certain cancers. These viruses include:

  • Epstein-Barr virus: Linked to lymphoma, nasopharyngeal cancer, and stomach cancer.
  • Hepatitis B and hepatitis C: Linked to liver cancers.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): Linked to certain sarcomas and lymphoma.
  • Human papilloma virus (HPV): Linked to anal cancer, cervical cancer, and throat cancer.

If My Parent Had Cancer, Will I Get It Too?

Not necessarily, but certain cancers do run in families, Dr. Rothman says. You might be at higher risk for developing cancer if someone in your family has had the following types of cancer:

If your parent had cancer, it doesn’t always mean you’ll get it too. But it’s important to let your doctor know so they can recommend appropriate cancer screenings. Your doctor may recommend genetic testing to see if you have changes (mutations) to certain genes that increase your cancer risk.

Does Cancer Hurt?

Sometimes cancer is painful, Dr. Rothman says. You might feel pain if cancer has spread (metastasized) to other parts of your body. You might also feel pain after a test to look for cancer (biopsy), or after surgery or radiation therapy to treat cancer.

Your doctor can recommend treatments and strategies to help manage any pain you feel. But it’s also important to know that cancer is often painless. You might not have any symptoms at all, which can allow tumors to grow undetected, Dr. Rothman says.

If you notice any symptoms, talk with your doctor — especially if you have a family history of cancer.

Am I Going to Lose My Hair If I Have Cancer?

Not always, Dr. Rothman says. Hair loss happens more often during treatment with intensive chemotherapy. These powerful drugs work throughout your body (systemically) to kill cancer cells, but they also damage healthy cells in your hair follicles.

When cells in hair follicles become damaged, new hairs can break off before they grow or just after emerging on your skin. This damage typically happens within the first few weeks of treatment. Systemic therapies might cause hair loss all over the body, while radiation therapy may cause hair loss only in the treatment area.

Not everyone will lose their hair because of cancer treatment. But the good news for those who do is that once treatment ends, hair typically returns.

Does Cancer Always Need Immediate Treatment?

Your doctor will consider many factors when deciding how to treat cancer, Dr. Rothman says. These include your:

  • Age.
  • Type of cancer.
  • Stage of cancer (whether it has spread to other parts of the body).
  • Family history.
  • Personal health history.
  • Functional status (how you’re managing daily activities).

“Some cancers demand immediate attention and treatment, such as a young person with advanced cancer,” Dr. Rothman says. In elderly patients with many health problems, doctors might take a wait-and-see approach. Some cancers also tend to advance more slowly, meaning they may not need aggressive treatment, including:

  • Low-grade lymphoma.
  • Early-stage prostate cancer.
  • Nonmelanoma skin cancer.

Can a Biopsy Spread Cancer?

Some people believe that taking a tissue sample to look for cancer cells (a biopsy) can spread cancer, Dr. Rothman says. But the American Society of Clinical Oncology says the benefits of biopsy far outweigh any risks. Diagnosing and treating cancer early (when needed) helps improve health outcomes for many people.

American Cancer Society, Facts About Cancer Pain, Link

American Cancer Society, Viruses that Can Lead to Cancer, Link.

American Cancer Society, Risk Factors for Anal Cancer, Link.

American Society of Clinical Oncology, HIV/AIDS-Related Cancer: Statistics, Link.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Family Health History and Cancer, Link., Hair Loss in Chemotherapy: Overview, Link.

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.