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5 popular myths about the causes of cancer

The real cancer threats

You can take steps to reduce or avoid many known cancer risks, such as these:

  • Tobacco. Whether you chew it, smoke it or merely breathe secondhand smoke, tobacco is a leading cancer cause.
  • Sunlight. No tan is a healthy tan.
  • Alcohol. Cancer risk rises with more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
  • Ionizing radiation. Sources include radioactive fallout, radon gas and X-rays. However, the benefits of needed X-rays far outweigh the small risk of developing cancer from them.
  • Certain viruses and bacteria. Infection with human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B and C, Epstein-Barr virus or H. pylori increases your cancer risk.
  • Hormone therapy. Taking estrogen, progestin or diethylstilbestrol (DES) can put you at higher risk.
  • Chemicals and substances. Exposure to asbestos and some industrial chemicals, such as benzene, vinyl chloride and others, can cause cancer.
  • Obesity. Being overweight, eating poorly and shunning exercise increase cancer risk.

Does chatting via cell phone risk a brain tumor? Can deodorizing your underarms lead to breast cancer? Studies show that a surprising number of Americans believe these and other common but unproven claims about the causes of cancer. If you’re one of those people, you may be needlessly worrying about your health—and ignoring real cancer threats. Here are some common misconceptions and why you should stop worrying about them:

  1. Aspartame sweetens cancer risk. Suspicion of this artificial sweetener, marketed under brand names that include Equal and NutraSweet, began decades ago when a study of aspartame-fed rats suggested increased cancer risk. However, more recent and extensive research has refuted those findings. A 2006 study of half a million people compared people who drank aspartame-containing beverages with people who didn’t drink them. Increasing aspartame consumption didn’t lead to more lymphomas, leukemias or brain tumors in men or women.
  2. Antiperspirants promote breast disease. Several studies have examined ingredients in antiperspirants and deodorants, such as preservatives called parabens that mimic estrogen activity in the body. However, scientists couldn’t determine that parabens found in breast tumors came from these products or that parabens directly contributed to cancer development.
  3. Stress triggers cancer. Although psychological stress affects the immune system’s defense against infections and disease, researchers haven’t found that stressful life events like divorce or loss of a loved one can trigger subsequent cancer. Most cancers have been growing for years before diagnosis and predate any recent stressful event.
  4. Drinking from water bottles left in a car is risky. This e-mail-perpetuated myth theorizes that when plastic water bottles stored in a car become heated, diethylhexyl adipate (DEHA) leaches from the plastic to the water and causes cancer. First, DEHA is rarely present in the plastic used to make these bottles. Second, if it were, it isn’t a cancer-causing agent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  5. Cell phones cause brain tumors. In the United States, cell-phone frequencies fall within a range that produces non-ionizing radiation, the type that doesn’t heat body tissues or damage cells. Studies haven’t shown any consistent link between cell phones and cancer, but because the technology is still new and changing, scientists urge additional research. To reduce radiation exposure, use a hands-free device to place distance between your head and the phone’s antenna.


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