The myths surrounding Anastacia’s breast cancer recurrence

This week I have been reading some excellent articles on the language we use to describe cancer – its diagnosis, treatment, and aftermath.  In particular, Atif Kukaswadia’s The Problem With Fighting Cancer in  PLOS Public Health Perspectives,  is well worth a read.  Kukaswadia refers to the military metaphors we are now so familiar with.

Often, the media (and by extension, society) describe someone with cancer as a “warrior” who “battles” cancer. ..On the surface, I get why we use this language. The language is meant to be positive – it’s meant to evoke support. It’s a tough and trying time, and family/friends/colleagues want to provide help in a way they can. So we follow the template set for us by the media and charities to try and help, as words fail us.

I was reminded of Kukaswadia’s words today as I read of the singer Anastacia’s recurrence of breast cancer. Here is a sample from one newspaper:

Now more then ever, she is determined to live by her motto “Don’t ever let cancer get the “Best of You!

A born survivor, Anastacia has one goal and that is to make a full recovery with the support of her family, friends and everyone around her.

Lazy journalistic clichés aside, I also balk at the myths perpetuated  in the following:

Speaking previously about her successful battle against breast cancer, Anastacia blamed the stress of being a world-famous singer for her contracting the disease, as there was no history of breast cancer in her family.

And a selection of some of the comments from online readers:

this amazing woman WILL beat cancer again. Her strength knows no boundaries & she’s a true inspiration

poor woman but once you have it once you will get it again cancer is evil

You beat it once, you can beat it again!

Let’s take a look at some of the common myths and misperceptions that continue to be perpetuated around cancer.

Myth #1 cancer is hereditary

One of the biggest breast cancer myths is that if you don’t have a family history of breast cancer you don’t have to worry about it. In fact, only 5% to 10% of cancers are hereditary (passed down by a family member). The majority of cancers are caused by genetic changes that occur throughout a person’s lifetime.

Myth #2  Stress causes cancer

The question of  the link between stress and cancer has been investigated by researchers exploring whether people who experienced extreme stress were more likely to develop cancer.  While it is true that stress impacts your health, cancer is a complex disease and to date no study has shown any evidence of an association between stressful events and a diagnosis of cancer.  Yet the  perception remains among many patients that stress was a factor in causing their cancer. I am aware that many of us can look back at the time of our own diagnosis and point to a stressful situation at that time – I know I can – but, perhaps we could look at it another way. Many people who are chronically stressed turn to unhealthy ways of coping – smoking, drinking or eating excessively. We know these are risk factors for developing cancer, so perhaps this is our indirect link?

Myth #3 Positive thinking will cure cancer

Although a positive attitude may improve your quality of life during cancer treatment, there is no scientific evidence that it can cure cancer. That is not to say that you shouldn’t have a positive attitude, just that it will not of itself cure cancer. What a positive attitude can do is improve the quality of your life during cancer treatment and beyond. You may be more likely to stay active, maintain ties to family and friends, and continue social activities. In turn, this may enhance your feeling of well-being and help you find the strength to deal with your cancer.

Myth #4 If you are diagnosed with cancer, you will probably die.

Cancer is not a death sentence. Advances in cancer detection and treatment have increased survival rates for most common types of cancer. In fact, more than 60% of people with cancer survive five years or more after their initial diagnosis.

I am terribly saddened to hear of Anastasia’s breast cancer recurrence ten years after her initial diagnosis, in the same way that I am sad beyond words when dear friends, like Jan are going through treatment for cancer again.   Fear of a recurrence is something that all of us who have heard the words “you have cancer” carry with us. While we don’t want the fear to take over our lives, we still need to be vigilant – a local recurrence may still be curable, so early detection and adopting a healthy lifestyle is very important.  And yet, sometimes no matter what we do, cancer comes back into our lives.  It is the dark cloud that sits beyond our horizon and looms into view each time we hear of another friend, family member or celebrity who has been diagnosed with cancer.

We are working hard in the blogosphere to educate, inform and support each other through the stark realities of cancer and its sequelae. There are different ways in which we do this – some of us use humor, some sarcasm, some positive reinforcement, some impassioned exposure of the inequities and injustices in the system – and while the conversations in our blogs and online platforms may differ in how we speak about cancer, one thing I hope we can all agree on is that it is time to banish the myths surrounding cancer. These myths do more harm than just frighten us, they can also obscure the key messages to help women understand their risk of breast cancer.

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