Today is World Cancer Day. This year’s theme is “Cancer Myths – Did you know?”, so it’s timely for me to put one prevalent cancer myth to rest.

More survive now

Whether it’s someone on our Cancer Council Facebook page, our iheard myth-busting website, someone at a dinner party or a chatty taxi driver on the weekend, most of us at Cancer Council have at one time or another been asked the million dollar question: why haven’t we found a cure for cancer?

Taking it a step further are the conspiracy theorists who claim there is a cure for cancer but that the “cancer industry” covers it up. We would be delighted if cancer was eradicated overnight. Most people know someone who has had cancer – it affects one in two Australians by the age of 85 – and indeed personal experience of cancer is often a factor in people wanting to work for a cancer charity.

It’s a preposterous idea that there’s a “cancer industry” denying a cure out of self-interest. Not only would this require an unimaginably large-scale collaboration of conspirators, it would mean cancer scientists hiding the cure from our own loved ones who have cancer, in exchange for a salary.

The word ‘cancer’ covers around 200 different types of disease, which makes it highly unlikely there will ever be a magic bullet cure for them all. It’s far more likely that advances in treatment will result in more cancers becoming ‘manageable’ chronic diseases. People will live with their cancer, and maintain a good quality of life.

Research has led to significant improvements in both detecting and treating cancer. In particular, there have been big gains in early detection. Early detection through programs such as Breastscreen, the cervical cancer screening program and more recently the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program have resulted in tens of thousands of cancers being picked up early and treated successfully, before they grow or spread and become more difficult to treat.

New technologies are also allowing more targeted treatments that are highly effective, killing cancer cells without harming other tissue and resulting in fewer side-effects. Therapies which target genetic changes that cause cancer to grow are promising advances.

Cancer survival in Australia has improved by more than 30 per cent over the past two decades, thanks to advances in prevention, early detection and treatment.

Where diagnosis of a cancer was once often considered a death sentence, the majority of patients are now surviving cancer. The most recent figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that five year survival improved from 47 per cent in 1982-87 to 66 per cent in 2006-10.

More people are being diagnosed with cancer, however this is mainly due to population growth and ageing of the population. In fact death rates from cancer have been steadily falling. In 1988, there were 214 deaths from cancer in Australia per 100,000 people. Since then there has been a steady fall and by 2007 (latest available national figures), the rate had fallen to 176 deaths per 100,000 people.

Research is key to progress and an area Cancer Councils heavily invest in. But it’s not just research into better treatments. It’s true when they say prevention is better than cure and, thanks to research, we now know that a third of all cancer deaths can be prevented by making healthy lifestyle choices. We’ve used this evidence to inform our awareness and education programs, as well as advocating for legislative changes, such as the introduction of plain packaging to remove the sophisticated branding from cigarette packs that contributes to influencing many young people to start smoking.

Our public health awareness and education programs are vital. We can’t aim to control cancer by ourselves if people continue to smoke, drink at risky levels, get too much sun exposure, are physically inactive and have a poor diet. Unfortunately too often people pay attention to cancer myths, and so disregard important messages about these scientifically proven causes of cancer.

Practical and emotional support is also crucial in improving the quality of life for people coping with cancer and to ensure they stand the best chance possible of surviving cancer. We fund a range of programs to assist patients and their families, such as Cancer Council Helpline which takes more than 70,000 calls a year, physical and online cancer support groups, accommodation for patients undergoing treatment, information on cancer in treatment centres and hospitals around the country and more. We also help health practitioners adopt the best available methods of treatment through our clinical practice guidelines

So our mission is to minimise the threat of cancer to Australians, through successful prevention, best treatment and support – based on the evidence. We will continue researching individual treatments for the many, complex, specific cancer types; we will also continue to provide prevention and patient support programs that work. 

There was a time when, as a patient diagnosed with ‘the big C’, your first question would have been: ‘How long have I got?’ Now, and increasingly so, the first question a patient should ask is ‘What are we going to do about it?’

Comments on this post close at 8pm AEDT.

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    • acotrel says:

      05:16am | 04/02/13

      After Tim Matheson’s ‘silly and tasteless joke’ the other day, a lot of older men have become aware of the importance of the prostate check and fewer will die of cancer !

    • Shane* says:

      08:28am | 04/02/13

      Except that not all men automatically need a test once they hit a certain age…

      In fact MOST men don’t need the test at all, ever. Talk to your GP. It’s a complex issue, and population screening for prostate cancer is absolutely not the way to go.

    • Kika says:

      09:48am | 04/02/13

      Why is that Shane?

    • marley says:

      10:10am | 04/02/13

      @Shane* - it’s my understanding that all men should have the rectal exam.  Having the PSA is another matter - and you’re right, probably not necessary for a lot of men.

    • acotrel says:

      11:05am | 04/02/13

      I think that a while back, most men who had prostate cancer, died of other things before the cancer got them. These days the heart and stroke stuff is more under control, so more men develop prostate cancer .  The PSA test in itself is not a test for cancer , but a change in the count is an indication that it might be there . I have friends who are being monitored, and my brother had the op to remove his prostate - snip, a bit of discomfort, script for viagra - brand new.  I have personally been checked by endoscope - mildly unpleasant but necessary.

    • Shane* says:

      11:17am | 04/02/13

      @Kika and Marley,

      The DRE (Digital Rectal Exam) is very limited as a diagnostic tool, and it’s only really any good when used on conjunction with the PSA test. However, the PSA is flawed also, and is not recommended as a population screening tool.

      I’m simplifying, but basically if you have a first-degree relative who has had prostate cancer, then chances are good your GP will recommend PSA+DRE testing.

      However, for men without symptoms, risk factors or family history, a PSA+DRE test is also (unfortunately) highly likely to return a positive test and/or lead to unnecessary treatment.

      There is no diagnostic test available that can tell which prostate cancer is going to have an impact on your life. We cannot distinguish between aggressive and passive tumours until after the fact.

      MOST prostate cancers sit idly, grow at a glacial pace, and never impact on your life. MOST. Many men die WITH prostate cancer, but not OF prostate cancer.

      The biggest studies have shown that if we used PSA+DRE across the entire male population after 50 years of age, it would cause a lot more harm than good. It would have a lot of false-positives and it would prompt many men to undergo pretty severe treatment on cancers that never would have threatened their life or lifestyle.

      So, ultimately, talk to your GP. It might be suitable for you, but it may not.

      The following organisations DO NOT recommend PSA+DRE exams for screening the population: Cancer Council Australia, Cancer Australia, The Australian Government, Cancer Research UK, The American Cancer Society.

    • pa_kelvin says:

      12:26pm | 04/02/13

      The following comment was posted on a article from yesterday..
      I’m posting it here because I think it’s informative.. Thanks Dave

            Dave says:

            10:30am | 03/02/13

            As a scientist performing blood tests for a living I would love to agree with you here, but I can’t. ALL the tumor marker blood tests we currently have are effectively useless for diagnostic purposes. Why? You ask. Because of individual variation between people coupled with individual variation between people’s tumours. I may have a small prostate tumour that secretes PSA like its going out of style but be benign or nowhere near metastasizing. You might be riddled with metastases but secreting less than me due to the genetic mutation that led to the cancer in the first place.  Note that “me” and “you” are hypothetical for the case of the argument.

            Now add in that the PSA is raised in other benign conditions as well (Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia) and you can see the problem with the test.

            Finally imaging. Breast cancer’s big test is the mammogram. Also called the bench press for boobies, the breast is squished into the device and then x-rayed. Thankfully breasts are external and easier to get at than your prostate. Imaging your prostate to the same degree is quite difficult as first you need to find it (biological variation guarantees that patient A’s prostate is a little to the left and patient B’s is a little to the right. And you can’t figure that out until after you’ve bombarded the groin in question with x-rays.

            Talking about x-rays, radiographer s are strangely reluctant to bombard people’s genitalia with radioactive, mutagenic x-rays. I keep telling them I am hoping for a little Wolverine, but they won’t listen.

            Then there is the makeup of the tissue involved. Breasts are mainly fatty tissue. A solid tumour sticks out like the proverbial. A prostate is solid tissue. Differentiating a large prostate from a tumourous prostate by imaging is hard work. As is differentiating by feel, which is why the doctor takes a biopsy while they’re there.

            So as humiliating as it is (both to the patient and to medical science that can’t believe we can’t improve on such a subjective test) a finger up your bum is still the winner. Of course once you are diagnosed then PSA comes into its own as a prognostic test (prognosis, measuring progress of disease). Once we can establish a patients baseline PSA at diagnosis we can then monitor for increases denoting progression of disease, or (preferably) reductions following therapy.

    • Kika says:

      12:57pm | 04/02/13

      But isn’t it better to be safe than sorry? So if ALL males have some form or degree of prostate cancer and some receive treatment unnecessarily, but some are diagnosed and their lives are saved as a result of mass screening, isn’t this better than no screening at all?

      Men don’t need an excuse NOT to see their doctor. My Dad is a classic example. He kept putting off having a colonoscopy for years and years because he ‘didn’t want to know’. He finally gave in to the pressure and had one and had some polyps removed. He’s going back again soon to get some more removed. If he didn’t go for the testing he wouldn’t have known and yes, the polyps may never have turned malignant but they may have.

      The breast screening system has the same arguments, that it over diagnoses. But I suppose women see their health differently to men.

    • pa_kelvin says:

      01:26pm | 04/02/13

      Kika ... The problem is that the PSA is not a reliable test in as much that there are varying factors involved… For instance having sex a day or two before testing will show a higher PSA level than would be abstaining for a week or two.The first link above that I posted shows new ,more reliable types of tests that will be able to tell whether a tumour is benign, or needs to be removed.
      In my case a blood test showed a high (9.8) reading of PSA two more tests were performed both with high readings before a referal to a urologist which is when the DRE happened..
      I had a biopsy taken which showed agressive cancer to my prostate which was later removed….
      The cancer has since come back in my bones for which I am currently being treated for…
      end ramble

    • PsychoHyena says:

      02:18pm | 04/02/13

      @Kika, what it sounds like you are proposing is that unnecessary procedures are okay because there are some people that it is a success for, which, if there were no possible adverse results I would agree with you on.

      Using like for like, what if we were to use the same theory with cervical cancer? Surely women wouldn’t be happy that they are having their sexual enjoyment or fertility or bladder/bowel control being impacted because of a ‘better safe than sorry’ approach.

    • Shane* says:

      03:27pm | 04/02/13


      Why don’t all women have precautionary mastectomies as soon as their breastfeeding days are done? Better safe than sorry?

    • Kika says:

      03:38pm | 04/02/13

      Pa Kelvin - So how come you can’t tell men to abstain for a week leading up to the test? The rules about having a colonoscopy are worse than abstaining just for a week!

      Psycho Hyena - I am going to assume MOST men with prostate issues are past their breeding years so fertility wouldn’t be too much of a concern, but sexual enjoyment? I can understand that bladder and bowel function would be a bit harsh but surely you wouldn’t put sex in front of your own life?

      Men are strange creatures.

    • Kika says:

      03:53pm | 04/02/13

      Shane - Equating the removal of breasts to having a small prostate digital prostate test and a blood test is ridiculous!!!

    • PsychoHyena says:

      06:16pm | 04/02/13

      @Kika, are you being serious? IF I had prostate cancer then yes I would put having it removed before sexual gratification, however it would also depend on the likelihood of it developing into a malignant tumour. Would you have say every mole on your body surgically removed ‘just in case’?

      The truth of the matter is that typically every single human being has some form of tumour on or in their body. Does this mean that ‘just in case’ every single human being should receive surgery/radiation therapy/chemotherapy? I think not.

      Due to my family’s medical history, I can’t afford to live my life by ‘what ifs’, I’d get nothing achieved.

    • Josh says:

      06:20am | 04/02/13

      I’m glad cancer research is going well.

      It’s a shame there are so many ‘cancer awareness’ sham charities. They should be shut down. Livestrong’s CEO pockets $300k a year…

    • Robert S McCormick says:

      09:19am | 04/02/13

      The only way this will be achieved is if people stop giving. The biggest scam of all is those “charities”, which mutter, sotto voce, as to how they are involved in Childhood Cancer. Most of the alleged “Volunteers” who pester people as the enter their Supermarket & again on leaving are anything but “Volunteers” they are being paid a commission on every cent they collect, then those “charities” take out their “Administration Costs” & in many reported cases the people they claim to be helping are getting as little as 5 cents in the dollar.
      If people want to give money tobe used for Cancer, or any other form of research or support services, there are well known, legal, honest organisations: The Cancer Council, The Peter MacCallum Centre in Melbourne, Victoria, The Queen Elizabeth & Royal Adelaide Hospitals in Adelaide, Hospitals & other legal, honest Organisations in NSW. QLD, TAS, WA the NT & ACT. all of whom do great work & you can be sure that any money you do give will be used for the purpose you intend it tobe used for.
      We simply walk past those collectors outside shops. They get nothing
      Why the owners & managers of our Supermarkets allow these parasites to hang around outside their stores is beyond me. I had a shop for a time & if any collectors hung around on the pavement outside my shop I would go out & ask them to move away. Without exception they did as I asked. Easy-peasy!

    • pa_kelvin says:

      09:47am | 04/02/13

      Movember org is also a legit foundation…
      Agree with collectors in shopping centres for any “charity”


      06:31am | 04/02/13

      Hi Ian,

      I totally agree with you when you say that getting cancer could be related to our life styles exclusively.  Such as sun tanning, smoking, drinking and not having a balanced diet. However I would like to believe that environmental factors , predisposition and genetic factors are also at play as well.  Because when we examine the cause of most childhood and young adult onset cancers such as leukemia, can we truly blame it on our life styles only? 

      Yes most definitely cancer treatments have advanced quite bit in the recent years but chemotherapy alone isn’t enough. For the patients receiving chemo therapy especially there has to be support groups so they don’t feel so alone and instead they are empowered by others!  Just talking to my friends in Europe I have recently heard that laughter and being stress free could be the best medicines as well as very high doses of vitamin C to help cell renewal process after the damaging side effects of chemo therapy. 

      And lastly patients having access to healthy, nutritious and easily prepared meals can mean that they can only concentrate on getting better.  I still do look forward to more research and funding in to cancer!  Living with cancer and any kind of chronic illness can affect the patient’s ability to feel and act like others with no health problems.  By taking all the negative things out of our lives, can anyone really say that they won’t be touched by cancer in their life time?  Kind regards.

    • ma_kelvin says:

      07:05am | 04/02/13

      My wish is that all Cancer patients including Pa_kelvin once diagnosed with Cancer get to live another 20 years more than predicted by the Doctors.  I believe that eating good healthy food, getting exercise and enough sleep could help towards another 20 years of quality living.  Some Doctors don’t agree with me as they say eating good healthy food, exercising and getting sleep doesn’t help you live longer with cancer.  Maybe there is some truth in it as Cancer is insidious and can attack the health of us.  I am saying that along with the wonderful treatments that keep cancers at bay. Building up immunity and looking after yourself may help give cancer patients the best quality of life you can hope for. 
      Also I will be proven correct within the next 10 years that good and healthy food, exercising and plenty of sleep will prevent the cancer gene in all of us from activating.  Deactivating the Cancer Gene before it takes hold is the key.  People will live to 100 with a quality of life and that’s the best that we can hope for.  Australia should be known for its healthy lifestyle, healthy food and if you live in Australia you will live longer. I don’t think the boozy and drunken lifestyle our young people are living today will help them live longer.  Make a stand all Punchers for the healthy lifestyle we can all have.  Tell us stories of the organic farmers you know about and the fitness gurus that have helped many people. Those people will be the true heroes of the future.  Also our medical professions are the heroes of today.  Love to all

    • Jay says:

      10:11am | 04/02/13

      It is all to do with the genes and any Doctor will tell you that.
      Doing all of the right things you mentioned is important, but certain cancers are in your genes and there is little you can do about it. There is no serious interest in curing cancer as the money that the Drug Companies would lose would be phenomenal. I appreciate that there is lots of research but it always seems to promise a lot and then it just fades into the background. Instead they are happy to prolong people’s lives with their drugs and continue with their huge profits.

    • acotrel says:

      08:59am | 04/02/13

      I always contribute to breast cancer research.  It stands to reason that if we keep searching we will find answers.  Sadly too late for my two sisters.

    • Shane* says:

      09:02am | 04/02/13

      You realise you gave a link to a Snopes article that basically quotes the American Cancer Society as saying ‘It was blown way out of proportion thanks to the internet, but it’s worth investigating so we’re doing so’???

      Also worth mentioning: Plenty of drugs kill cancer cells. That’s not all that unique. Plenty do it without killing normal cells, too. But it’s a hell of a long way from a petri dish to practical usage.

    • pa_kelvin says:

      09:43am | 04/02/13

      Anubis   marley   Thanks for the links, but I for one wont be ordering DCA anytime soon…
      I have more bone scans and CT on wednesday with results at my oncologists on friday to acess for further treatment at which time I will ask about DCA…
      Unfortunatly my PSA has been steadally rising so that further treatment for me is in the near future, but talking with my onclogist there are new treatments showing good results coming to market all the time…

    • marley says:

      10:15am | 04/02/13

      @Pa Kelvin - DCA may have some potential in the future but it’s not there now.  I think that one of the big issues is that people who have cancer (or any serious disease) will grasp at almost any straw - they’ll believe anecdotes, or think that something that works in a test tube will automatically work on living humans.  Medicine just doesn’t work that way.

      But yes, there are a lot of interesting advances out there and in the works. lt just takes so damn long to properly test them before they can be licenced.  Anyway, good luck with the treatments - you seem to be a fighter (and you’ve got Ma Kelvin on your side, which is a big plus!).

    • Anubis says:

      11:13am | 04/02/13

      I included a variety of links in order to illustrate different perspectives on DCA, not just the positive

    • Peter M says:

      08:41am | 04/02/13

      Credit to the pharmaceutical industry -they have spent Billions in researching and developing new medicines over decades.

      Credit also to the Cancer organisations and governments for their investments into research

    • craig2 says:

      12:20pm | 04/02/13

      Thank you Peter M, nice to be recognised as a pharma rep and the research behind the scenes to get those medicines out there.

    • Jo Hilder says:

      08:57am | 04/02/13

      As a cancer survivor of ten years, and now a cancer coach and author, I’m amazed many folks still respond to conversations about cancer in ways which might have been expected thirty or more years ago. I’ve written this piece for World Cancer Day to address the 6 most common myths I come across, and also discuss ways we can address these mindsets. Hope you’ll check it out.
      The 6 Most Unhelpful Myths About Cancer, And How You Can Change Them by Jo Hilder

    • Kika says:

      09:54am | 04/02/13

      Cancer is part of living. All animals seem to be prone to cancers and the more we learn to live with it, diagnose and possibly cure it the better. It’s only just a speck of time we humans have been able to live beyond 40 so we’re only starting to understand how aging affects our bodies and what sort of quality of life we should expect in our older years.

    • Robert S McCormick says:

      10:20am | 04/02/13

      Yes, I had not forgotten Movember & the great work they do - I am sorry I missed it out but I think people will get my drift with regard to:
      Honest, Decent organisations raising cash, awareness etc. for so many “things”

    • Jols says:

      10:53am | 04/02/13

      My mother was diagnosed with Advanced Ovarian Cancer a week before Christmas.  She now sees that she had all the symptoms but didn’t recognise them as symptoms of Ovarian Cancer and instead put it down to getting old, acid reflux, stomach issues etc etc.    She had told me that she felt bloated, her stomach felt hard, she was having all sorts of trouble and asking me whether I thought her stomach looked bigger.  In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined that it was cancer as she always had some sort of ailment or another.  Ovarian Cancer is presented as the Silent Killer but it isn’t that silent it is just that the symptoms can often resemble something else. 

      Awareness is a huge key.  Had we recognised the symptoms earlier we might have caught it at a time when the chances of surviving it are easier/greater.

      February is Ovarian Cancer Afternoon Teal month, we are holding an afternoon tea to raise funds/awareness etc others can too -

    • Sarah Bath says:

      02:07pm | 04/02/13

      why is there this obsession with cancer.  What about the impact on HIV and why isnt there as much publicity.  HIV is devistating in GLBTI communities and yet there is little research for it.

      the other one is caused by such things as smoking and eating flesh.  There is no such result with vegetarians. Look at the stats

    • Modern Primitive says:

      02:32pm | 04/02/13

      Yeah, but veganism is a slow and cruel death anyway. I’ll take my chances with ass cancer thanks.

    • Shane* says:

      02:53pm | 04/02/13

      Maybe because HIV/AIDS kills fewer than 100 Australians annually, while cancer chalks up that number in a single day?

      Just a hunch.

    • marley says:

      03:33pm | 04/02/13

      HIV gets plenty of funding, and it most certainly is not devastating the lesbian community.

      And oddly enough, vegans do die of cancer.  Look at the stats.

    • marley says:

      06:19pm | 04/02/13

      Oh, and more members of the GLBTI community will die of cancer than of HIV.


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