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Dispelling four myths about cancer

Not all types have to be treated immediately, and some in Stage 4 can still be cured

Much information abounds on the topic of cancer, but there are also misconceptions being perpetuated within social circles or even by popular culture.

Associate Professor Chng Wee Joo, director of National University Cancer Institute, Singapore, tackles four big myths about the disease.

ALL TYPES OF CANCER HAVE TO BE TREATED IMMEDIATELY

Some low-grade or more indolent tumours can be observed without treatment.

They are very slow-growing tumours and may take a long time before causing symptoms. Treatment usually comes into the picture when the person experiences symptoms.

Some cancers run in the family. If you have a strong family history of cancer, and have inherited the gene that predisposes you to the disease, you can opt for surgery to remove organs that can be affected by cancer in future, such as the breast or ovaries.

For these cases, early treatment does not cure the person or prolong his life any more than getting treated when symptoms crop up.

In such instances, early treatment may result in more side effects, but without helping to extend the person's life.

I HAVE STAGE 4 CANCER. THERE IS NOTHING THE DOCTOR CAN DO TO EXTEND MY LIFE

Some types of cancer, such as high-grade lymphoma, can be cured with the appropriate treatment - even in the advanced stages.

Lymphoma is a form of cancer that affects the immune system.

Not all types of cancer are the same. It is important to understand the nature of the specific disease, as well as the treatment methods and prognosis.

DURING CANCER TREATMENT, I WILL DEFINITELY LOSE MY HAIR AND SUFFER FROM SEVERE NAUSEA AND VOMITING

These are side effects of chemotherapy, which involves getting injections or taking tablets.

A few chemotherapy drugs may be given at the same time, and every patient will have a treatment schedule that makes up a treatment cycle. Usually, several cycles are needed.

But not every cancer patient requires this treatment.

Here are other commonly used methods to fight cancer. They may be used alone or in combination.

  • Radiation therapy: This involves applying X-rays to a targeted area over a period of several days. A fraction of the dose is given each day. If this method is used to treat an internal cancer, the X-ray will pass through normal bodily structures, such as the skin, causing damage and side effects. With better techniques today, the target area can be more precisely marked out, reducing side effects.
  • Targeted drugs: These usually come in the form of tablets, and can be taken at home. They mostly work by inhibiting enzymes that support cancer growth. So they do not affect normal cells as much as other treatment methods, with fewer side effects felt by patients.
  • Antibodies: This is a form of targeted therapy that binds to proteins on the surface of cancer cells. Normal cells may not express these proteins. Therefore, side effects are fewer than chemotherapy. The patient may experience symptoms, such as fever and allergic reactions, when the antibodies are being infused into his body. But these symptoms are quite manageable.

THERE IS NOTHING I CAN DO TO PREVENT CANCER

For some types of cancer, you can.

An example is liver cancer that arises from a hepatitis infection. This can be prevented by getting vaccinated against hepatitis.

Women can also get vaccinated against the human papilloma virus, which causes cervical cancer.

In addition, some cancers run in the family. If you have a strong family history of cancer, and have inherited the gene that predisposes you to the disease, you can opt for surgery to remove organs that can be affected by cancer in future, such as the breast or ovaries.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 20, 2015, with the headline 'Dispelling four myths about cancer'. Print Edition | Subscribe