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Cancer Myths Prove Roadblock to Treatment

Almost 40 percent believe air exposure makes lung cancer spread

TUESDAY, Oct. 7, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Despite remarkable advances in the treatment of cancer, some people still don't get the best care possible because they decline lifesaving treatments based on fears arising from common folk stories.

Nearly 40 percent of people surveyed said they believed exposure to air during lung cancer surgery could make a tumor spread. Almost one in five blacks and one in 20 whites said they wouldn't have lung surgery due to this belief. And, up to 14 percent said talking to their doctor about the fear wouldn't change their mind.

Results of the study appear in the Oct. 7 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"This is a commonly held belief about cancer," says study author Dr. Mitchell Margolis, director of the pulmonary clinic at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "There is no scientific basis to prove it, but it could be an obstacle to getting people the care that they need."

Dr. Jay Brooks, chief of hematology and oncology at Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital in New Orleans, says he's not surprised by the study's findings because he sees these types of mistaken beliefs all the time.

"Years ago, when someone had cancer and we didn't have ultrasound or CT scans, doctors had to perform exploratory surgery to see how far the cancer had spread," Brooks explains. Often, by the time someone needed such surgery, the cancer was widespread and surgeons couldn't do anything for the patient. This led some people to believe it was the surgery that caused the cancer, rather than just confirmed it, Brooks says.

Margolis says the researchers tried to find where this belief about lung cancer began. They got varied but vague answers. Most people, he says, reported hearing it from a friend or family member.

More than 600 people from five clinics across the United States participated in the study. Two-thirds of the volunteers had chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema, and one-third had lung cancer. Sixty-seven percent were white and 27 percent were black. The average age was 60, and most were male.

The study participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their beliefs on lung cancer and how it spreads.

Almost half of those surveyed had heard that exposure to air during surgery could cause lung cancer to spread. Overall, 38 percent believed it.

There were significant differences in what blacks and whites believed. More than 60 percent of blacks believed air could cause the cancer to spread, while 29 percent of whites did.

Five percent of whites wouldn't have surgery because of this belief, compared to 19 percent of blacks. Even if told by their doctors that there was no truth to this myth, 14 percent of blacks said they would still believe it, compared to 5 percent of whites.

This isn't the first study to find such disparities between races when it comes to cancer treatment. Another study, appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association five years ago, found one of the reasons that black women have a higher death rate from breast cancer than white women is because cultural and religious beliefs may make them delay diagnosis and treatment.

Margolis says it's not clear why these racial differences exist. But he suspects blacks may have a stronger mistrust of physicians and may feel disenfranchised from the medical community. Also, the authors point out that in the clinics where the volunteers were recruited, there are very few black physicians.

Brooks says it's important "for doctors to understand the beliefs of their patients, and to sit down with them and really address the issue." He adds that it might be helpful for doctors to bring up these beliefs with their patients, because patients may be afraid to do so themselves.

And, for patients, he advises them not to be afraid to discuss anything with a doctor.

More information

To read more about cancer myths, visit the Mayo Clinic. For reliable information on lung cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute.

SOURCES: Mitchell Margolis, M.D., director, pulmonary clinic, Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and clinical associate professor, medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; Jay Brooks, M.D., chief, hematology/oncology, Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital, New Orleans; Oct. 7, 2003, Annals of Internal Medicine
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