Cancer myth busters

Do deodorant or cell phones really cause cancer? We help you sort fact from fiction when it comes to risk factors

Cancer myth busters

At least two in every five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime. This is a staggering statistic that underpins the importance of devoting time and efforts to causes like Relay for Life, but sometimes too much information powered by ‘Google’ can be dangerously misleading, it’s important to be well informed.


We’ve all heard the same horror stories about people getting cancer from using everyday products or devices. Where do these stories come from and is there any truth behind them?


"A lot of cancer myths start with a single research study with the findings being exaggerated or misinterpreted," says Dr. Robert Nuttall, assistant director, Cancer Control Policy at the Canadian Cancer Society. "For example, there might be a study done showing that a chemical can alter the DNA of a cell, which could be interpreted as showing that this chemical causes cancer. While this type of research is interesting and may be a first clue about how something can cause cancer, it takes numerous research studies, looking at many different conditions, before we can be confident that something causes cancer."


In reality, only a limited number of risk factors have been proven by reputable research’such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking. Here’s the real story behind the most common rumours:

Myth: The 21st century lifestyle can cause cancer

Truth: You’re just as likely to get cancer at any given time in your life as people in past generations. We are seeing the number of cancer cases rise in Canada, simply because we’re living longer, and older people are at higher risk, says Dr. Nuttall. "People are more likely to get cancer as they get older, with 89 percent of cases diagnosed in people over the age of 50, and 43 percent in people over the age of 70." Improved treatments have lengthened survival times and even cured some cancers’the death rate for breast cancer has gone down 30 percent since 1986.

Myth: Deodorant causes breast cancer

Truth: Most breast cancers appear in the upper-outer area of the breast, near the armpit, a fact that inspired the fear that deodorants and antiperspirants cause cancer. (However, this is where much of our breast tissue sits, so it’s logical cancers form there.) Meanwhile, there’s a worry that aluminum compounds’an ingredient in antiperspirants’have hormonal mimicking qualities, as do parabens, which are in an array of personal care products. But several large studies conducted over the last 10 years have come up with conflicting evidence and the Canadian Cancer Society doesn’t list deodorant as a threat.

Myth: A negative attitude can cause cancer

Truth: There’s long been talk that being overly stressed out puts you at risk for developing tumours. And, conversely, a positive approach during treatment means you’re more likely to beat cancer. What does science have to say? There could be a link between stress and some virus-related tumours such as Kaposi sarcoma and lymphomas, but this has not been definitively proven. Meanwhile, some studies have suggested that depressed people are more likely to die from cancer. While the reason hasn’t been determined, the higher mortality rate could mean that depression impacts the immune system, or depressed people don’t adhere as well to treatment.

Myth: Only sunburns lead to skin cancer

Truth: Many people love how they look with a tan and simply avoid burning to keep skin cancer at bay. However, any considerable sun exposure ups your risk. Research links basal cell carcinoma to occasional bad burns, while long-term exposure’the kind that may result in a tan’is more likely to lead to squamous cell tumours. Fortunately, these cancers are often treatable. However, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, melanoma, has been linked to very intense ultraviolet exposure. That’s why using tanning beds increases your risk of the disease by 75 percent.

Myth: Cell phones lead to brain tumours

Truth: The debate over whether radio frequencies’which is a mild form of radiation’from cell phones are leading to brain cancer is a hot issue and research is not 100% clear. In a 13-nation Interphone study published in 2010, no relationship between regular cell phone chatting and tumours was not found. However, in May 2011, a team of scientists from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that hand-held cellphones are ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to humans, and that cellphone radiation could increase the risk of certain types of brain cancers. Still, despite our increased exposure to cell phone frequencies, brain cancer is not on the rise. "Incidence rates in both males and females have been stable over the last 10 years," says Dr. Nuttall.


If you’re concerned about cellphones, or any of the risk factors mentioned, talk to your healthcare practitioner for more information. Never let fear stop you from seeking information or care.


Separating fact from fiction is important, and so is fighting for a cure, today Best Health is participating in Canadian Cancer Society’s Media Relay, tomorrow the media relay will continue with a segment from CTV Ottawa Morning Live! Sign up for the Relay for Life in your region by visiting: