By Monica Malik, MD, DNB
ASCO International Affairs Committee member
“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”
The word “cancer” has always elicited dread and fear in people across the world. There are abundant misconceptions about the disease, and the associated stigma has far-reaching consequences for those affected and their caregivers. Misinformation regarding cancer has led to various myths and incorrect perceptions. It has often been portrayed as a "death sentence" in media, fueling the fear of the disease. In many cultures, the negative beliefs, discrimination, and social barriers can isolate people, preventing them from seeking help and getting timely intervention.
Despite major advances in oncology, cancer remains a taboo in many communities. The belief that it is contagious is still prevalent in many parts of the world and leads to sufferers being alienated. Some communities believe that biopsy or surgery can cause the cancer to spread. Some people think of the disease as a curse or punishment, believing that they are destined to suffer. These beliefs cause enormous psychosocial distress and the consequences can be disastrous. Even within affluent and educated communities, the level of knowledge about cancer and the willingness to talk and seek support can be low. The barriers and negative attitudes also make it difficult for cancer survivors to seek or resume employment and impact their social interactions.
Propaganda and misinformation on the internet and social media are often responsible for perpetuating myths which promote unproven alternative therapies and pronounce cancer treatments to be worse than the disease itself.
It is therefore time for health care systems, governments, educational institutions, media, and individuals to challenge these negative perceptions and create an environment where people are empowered with access to the right knowledge and tools for cancer prevention and care. The media needs to cultivate a responsible attitude, verify the accuracy of information before dissemination, and actively seek to dispel myths. Health care providers, employers, and educational institutes can collaborate to provide access to accurate information and work towards changing attitudes and belief systems. Improving communication and removing the stigma associated with the disease will empower patients and caregivers to seek the right treatment and support. These steps can have a tremendous impact on mitigating the fear of cancer and improving patient outcomes.
Dr. Malik is an associate professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad, India.