Cancer Myth Busting

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MADISON - When you or a loved one are diagnosed with cancer, you need the truth and nothing but the truth. Yet a UW Health oncologist and his colleagues at the UW Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center (UWCCC) say the truth can be hard to find.


In fact, they often counsel patients who have heard some common myths about cancer.


Dr. Kyle Holen, a UWCCC medical oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal and esophageal cancers, says at worst, these myths may lead vulnerable cancer patients to try untested treatments or procedures.


"There are people who will prey on those who are desperate," observes Holen. "Treatments that are not evidence-based often become myths and give people false hope."


Holen says cancer myths have been circulating since the disease and its many forms were first identified. Consulting with his colleagues at Wisconsin's only comprehensive cancer center and one of only 38 in the U.S. designated by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Holen collected several that keep coming back like a boomerang.

Cancer Myth #1: "“I heard cancer feeds on sugar. Should I avoid eating all sugar?”"

Holen: "No. Almost every new patient will ask me about this. A theory prevalent on the Internet holds that sugar will influence blood sugar levels, feed cancer and cause it to spread. The truth is you can't really control blood sugar by what you eat. The body's complex system processes what we eat and manages to keep blood sugar levels stable. You could starve yourself for weeks and yet your blood sugar will remain stable. The exception to this, of course, is people with diabetes who don't have proper insulin-regulating systems. But if you apply the theory that sugar can affect your insulin levels and feed cancer, diabetics with cancer would all be dying of their cancer."

Cancer Myth #2: "I saw on the Internet that cancer likes acid and a low pH. If I eat alkaline foods, will it help my cancer?"

Holen: "There is no scientific evidence that this is true. This belief is very similar to the myth about altering your body's blood sugar level. It's difficult to change your blood pH by eating alkaline foods like green vegetables, strawberries, apples or pumpkin. Like blood sugar, the body's pH is tightly regulated. The bottom line is changing pH is not a rational way of treating cancer because it's almost impossible to alter blood pH."

Cancer Myth #3: "I don't want to have surgery because my cancer will spread when it's exposed to air."

Holen: "I'm usually able to convince patients that this is a myth, but many patients will ask about it. My colleagues who treat lung cancer patients regularly hear about patients' fears of making their cancer worse by exposing it to air during surgery. The myth has the potential to do a lot of harm to patients. If patients decide against having surgery because of that belief, it could prevent a cure. And that's the worst thing that could happen."

Cancer Myth #4: "I heard cancer can be cured if you use alternative treatments to boost your immune system. Should I drink mangosteen and noni juices?"

Holen: "Although I'm not an expert on alternative medicine, I am a researcher with a patent on a promising drug for rare neuroendocrine cancers. I know you should be skeptical about any so-called natural remedies unless they are tested in a scientifically controlled and systematic way. Don't believe testimonials you see in ads and on the Internet. Shark cartilage is the only supplement touted as a cancer treatment that has undergone true scientific study, and the study found shark cartilage was not effective. Sometimes, patients will suggest something that's worth trying. In those cases, I suggest doing it in a controlled setting by starting treatment and then introducing the remedy the patient wants to try. Then we know if the patient's side effects worsen, it's probably not a good idea to continue it. I often consult with Dr. Lucille Marchand, the director of Integrative Oncology Services, to find the healthiest and most effective treatments possible for patients interested in combining conventional and alternative therapies."


Holen stresses that cancer patients should follow two rules of thumb in seeking the treatment combinations best for them.


"First, patients should find a physician they feel comfortable with and trust. And second, they should always talk to their doctor about any alternative treatments before they try them."


For more information about cancer care at UW Paul P. Carbone Comprehensive Cancer Center, visit


Date Published: 06/26/2008

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