An email chain letter started spreading back in 2007, claiming that Johns Hopkins University had released a statement about hidden secrets of cancer, how it spreads, and how to give yourself the best chance to beat the disease naturally. Of course, many people readily read and dissipated the information, because Johns Hopkins is internationally renowned for their innovative medical research.
However, there are a few minor points that need to be corrected in the statement. First, nobody from Johns Hopkins wrote it, and secondly, it is packed to the brim with misinformation, bad science and just plain lies. Okay, maybe those points aren’t quite so “minor” after all. Hopkins even issued a statement denying that they made or approved those claims and addressed some of the most egregious errors. This article seeks to provide additional insight into the fallacies that are being distributed around. While there are some elements of facts presented in the original claims, they are framed in a way that takes them out of their real context, inciting fear.
The motto of Johns Hopkins University is: Veritas vos liberabit. Translated: The truth will set you free. It is now time to debunk the claims from that “cancer update” in order to set us free of this nonsense. For simplicity's sake, some of the points taken from the original "update" were condensed to eliminate redundancies.
Hoax Claim: “Everyone has cancer cells in their body, and doctors can’t detect them until they have multiplied billions of times.”
Reality: Cells in your body have a strict cycle that they follow in order to grow and divide. There are checkpoints along the way to ensure that the cell is developing correctly. If they aren’t, they are given more time or the cell destroys itself. Sometimes cells can blow right by one checkpoint, but will be eliminated further down in line. Cells that grow and divide incorrectly are handled by the body, and the vast majority never turn into disease. However, there are genetic and environmental factors, such as smoking, that can increase the likelihood of unchecked cell growth that turn into cancer.
Finding cancer can be difficult, because different cancers are detected in different ways. While annual screenings can detect things like breast, prostate, or cervical cancer, many forms of cancer do not have a screening option available and are detected only after the person becomes symptomatic. As early detection is critical to treating and eliminating cancer, scientists are hard at work developing reliable, non-invasive ways to detect cancer at the earliest stages, even before symptoms begin. Some labs are even working with animals who can smell cancer, in hopes of developing an “electronic nose” that can detect cancer from breath or urine samples.
Hoax Claim: “A strong immune system will eradicate cancer cells and prevent tumors”
Truth: The immune system is not entirely a game of numbers, as the ability to recognize threats is just as important as having the means to dispose of them. Vaccines are a way to introduce a non-threatening form of a disease to the body so that the immune system can recognize and attack it later on. Cancers caused by viruses or bacteria are largely prevented by a vaccine that acts on the microbes. Vaccines for actual cancers has been slow going over the last few decades, but there are advances being made. The immune system isn’t always able to eliminate every cancer cell, so some vaccines are just aiming to weaken the disease, allowing conventional treatment to take over and take care of the rest.
Hoax Claim: “Nutritional deficiencies due to genetic, environmental, or lifestyle factors cause cancer. Supplements and diet will repair these deficiencies and certain supplements tell the body to eradicate the cancer cells.”
Truth: While it is true that being overweight and/or having a poor diet can increase the risk of developing cancer, diet alone cannot eliminate cancer once it is there. While it would be beneficial to adopt a healthier lifestyle in general to prevent many diseases beyond cancer, it should enhance your treatment, not replace it.
Supplements are necessary for alleviating nutritional deficiencies, but not everyone with cancer has a deficiency and supplements have not been shown to have any benefit from a dose higher than the daily recommended intake. A healthy, balanced diet should provide all necessary nutrients, without the need for additional supplementation.
Hoax Claim: “Chemotherapy and radiation destroy healthy cells and damage healthy tissue, increasing the risk for organ failure and further disease.”
Truth: The side effects from treatment can be harsh, as the medications designed to attack the fast-growing cancer cells can also attack healthy cells that grow quickly, such as hair. These side effects are typically temporary. Treatments try to minimize side effects as much as possible, and innovations such as those using nanoparticles could target individual cancer cells with the chemotherapy drugs, leaving healthy tissue alone. In the coming years, cancer treatment will begin to look very different from what we see today.
Hoax Claim: “While radiation and chemotherapy are effective at first, continued treatment does not provide any benefits for getting rid of tumors. Too much treatment creates chemo-resistant cells.”
Truth: Some cancerous cells are able to circumnavigate the toxic effects of chemo, which is a serious problem that scientists are working to rectify. By understanding the mechanisms by which the cancerous cells are able to avoid being killed by the medicine, researchers could also be able to develop new screening techniques and innovative therapies.
Hoax Claim: “Surgery spreads cancer.”
Truth: Surgery is the preferred method of cancer treatment as it doesn’t bear the same side effects that chemo and radiation can bring. Tumors spread when cells become freed and move to a new location in the body, and the fear presented here is that cutting into a tumor will free those cells in the same way. While that would happen—albeit rarely—during biopsies, using smaller needles and having a capable, cognizant physician has eliminated most of the risk of that happening.
Hoax Claim: “By eliminating sugar and artificial sweeteners, animal products, caffeine, and salt from the diet, as well as eating a mainly raw diet, the cancer cells will starve to death. Those bad foods make your body acidic, allowing cancer to thrive. Alkaline diets will fight cancer.”
Truth: A healthy diet is of course, a good idea. As it was previously mentioned, maintaining a healthy body weight decreases the risk of cancer and healthy diets are typically a part of that (though that’s not to say that every skinny person has healthy habits) However, the idea that you can “starve” cancer is not supported by scientific evidence.
The body does an incredibly efficient job at regulating its pH on its own and diet will not make any significant changes. Blood stays relatively constant at 7.35-7.45, and anything that alters that number too much will be excreted through urine.
Hoax claim: “Eating meat causes a buildup of toxins in your gut, and takes away from the enzymes vegetables use to fight tumors.”
Truth: All diets should have a healthy amount of vegetables, meat will not take anything away from them. While overindulgence of meats, particularly processed meats and those with nitrates, can increase the risk for disease, there is no evidence that eating the recommended amount of lean meat will cause cancer. Overall healthy lifestyle is important.
Hoax claim: “Cancer is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit. Positive attitudes will allow you to fight cancer, while negative feelings feed cancer.”
Truth: Stress can take a tremendous toll on the body, and small studies have shown that it can actually alter the genome and leave the person more susceptible to disease. Cancer treatments can take a tremendous physical and emotional toll, so it is important to try to keep spirits high, just to make life a little bit nicer when faced with such a difficult situation.
The notion that being positive will prevent or treat cancer is not only is this nonsense, it is rather offensive nonsense. Cheerful people can get cancer, and grumpy people can live to be 95 with no health problems. Cancer is a result of biological processes gone awry and is not “mind over matter”. While meditation and decreasing stress have been shown to alleviate psychosomatic ailments like anxiety, stress, and high blood pressure, it doesn’t treat the cancer itself.
Hoax claim: “Cancer cannot live in an oxygenated environment. Deep breathing will get oxygen down to the cellular level. Oxygen therapy can be used to destroy cancer cells.”
Truth: Inhaling air brings oxygen into your lungs, which is then swapped out for carbon dioxide in your bloodstream that will then act at the cellular level. Breathing deeply will not force the oxygen anywhere it would not otherwise go. While exercise is encouraged as part of a healthy lifestyle, increased respiration will not attack tumors.
There are certain therapies that operate under this assumption and utilize hydrogen peroxide or ozone in order to bolster oxygen in the body. There is no scientific evidence to support that this has any effect on tumors at all, and it can actually be fatal. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (a chamber with increased air pressure) is useful for treating many illnesses, but there is no evidence that it treats cancer.
Advocating against traditional treatments in favor of alternative treatments with track records that are anecdotal at best is irresponsible. The sooner the doctors are able to treat the disease, the better the chance of recovery. Avoiding medical treatments can rob someone with cancer of those critical earliest stages, which may cost them their life.