Cancer myths - the ones you don't have to worry about
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about, every day seems to bring a new scare story about cancer. They may seem much more common in the last few years. That’s because they are – people can make almost any claim they want on the internet without having to provide proof, and these stories pass like wildfire among well-meaning friends and acquaintances through email and social media. Before you know it, a story invented by an unscrupulous company wanting to sell more of its ‘safer’ or ‘chemical-free’ product is being quoted as hard fact. Here we explode some of the most common myths.
Antiperspirants (and wearing a bra!) give you breast cancer
Don’t worry – you don’t have to smell (or droop) to be healthy! The theories are that antiperspirants stop your body getting rid of toxins; or that chemicals get into your lymph nodes through your sweat glands; or that bras block the lymph channels which help you fight off cancer and infection. In fact, there is no evidence – or any anatomical or medical basis - for any of these. Although more than half of breast cancers are in the quarter of the breast closest to the armpit, this is because that is where most of the breast tissue is.
Sodium laurel sulphate in bathing products causes cancer
Sodium laurel sulphate (SLS) is widely used in bubble baths, shampoos, etc. A few years ago, I had so many patients worried about this one that I asked my local pharmacist to look into it. He tracked down all the original ‘research’ to a single website and rang the ‘author’ in America, who claimed he had never done any such work and his name was being taken in vain on the internet by companies who wanted to sell ‘natural’ bath products! SLS is a very effective detergent – so good that it’s used at higher strengths in industrial cleaning products – but there is no evidence it causes any kind of cancer.
Microwaving food in plastic containers or clingfilm causes cancer
This old chestnut has been carefully investigated by the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, who have found that any minuscule amounts of plastic which dissolve while heating food are well within safe limits. They also looked into claims that plastic containers are made with dioxins, which have been linked to cancer. But microwave manufacturers – and those of us who use them for convenience – can rest easy. There are no dioxins in any plastic containers or clingfilm food wrapping.
And two you might want to think about?
Most studies looking at mobile phone use – including a huge one of over 400,000, of whom 50,000 had been using mobiles regularly for more than 10 years – didn’t find any link between using mobile phones and getting cancer. One study, however, has suggested that using mobiles long term (for more than 10 years) might increase your risk of a non-cancerous tumour of the hearing nerve (called an acoustic neuroma) and a rare but nasty brain cancer called a glioma. The evidence certainly isn’t strong enough to persuade me to throw my mobile away. However, you may want to limit your time chatting on your mobile, or use a headset that keeps the antenna away from your brain.
There have also been lots of scares about pesticides in foods, causing cancer. This dates back to the very strong chemicals used decades ago on crops. These days, pesticides are carefully monitored, and national guidance is that, even if there were any tiny risk, it’s hugely outweighed by the benefits of eating fresh fruit and veg. But, just to be on the safe side, do wash your five-a-day well before you eat it.