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7 myths about cancer care: Costs, side effects, treatment types and more

| Healthy You | Chronic Conditions

Two women outdoors -- one young and one older -- embrace and rest their for foreheads against each other. The older woman wears a headwrap indicating hair loss from cancer treatment.

Learn how to separate fact from fiction when it comes to cancer treatment.

Learning that you have cancer can feel overwhelming. And it doesn't help that cancer care is a complex topic that's often misunderstood.

With so much information available online and via social media, it's important to find reliable sources. Having the facts at hand will help you make informed decisions about your care.

“The Internet can be great for finding support groups for rare cancers, but it is also filled with a lot of information not backed up by research,” says Jacob Woller, DNP, a cancer specialist at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center in Bellingham, Washington.

Cancer providers, called oncologists, have done a lot of work to understand the risks of different types of cancer and the full range of treatment options for each person, Woller says.

“There is so much variation in cancer,” he adds. “Even when we know which organ or tissue the cancer came from, the cell changes that led to the cancer can be varied and diverse.”

That’s why one person’s breast cancer may act differently from another’s. And why the treatment plans for a tumor at one stage might look different from one at another stage.

Below, Woller helps dispel some common myths — and share the facts — about cancer care.

Myth 1: All cancer treatment involves chemotherapy.

Fact: Chemo is a common treatment within the field of medical oncology, but it's not your only choice. Your care team will work with you to create a care plan based on your cancer type and stage.

Your plan could include any of the following kinds of treatment, separately or in combination:

  • Chemotherapy uses medication to destroy fast-growing cancer cells.
  • Radiation uses rays of energy to damage or destroy cancer.
  • Immunotherapy boosts your body's natural defense system so it can focus on finding and attacking cancer. Immune therapy drugs can be given by IV, in pill form or sometimes as a topical (rubbed on your skin).
  • Surgery uses precise tools and techniques to remove cancer cells and tumors.

Each type of treatment has its benefits. “There have been a lot of developments over the decades in cancer care,” Woller says. “Immunotherapy and targeted therapies have been a dramatic shift for treating certain cancers. That being said, chemotherapy is often still used as a first-line treatment for many types, such as head and neck and ovarian cancer.”

Your cancer specialist will help you make the choice about what best meets your needs.

“We often make recommendations based on national and international guidelines,” Woller notes. “But guidelines are just that, a guide for treatment.”

Your care team may find that the risks or side effects of some treatments aren’t appropriate for you. If so, they may adjust your treatment plan to better fit your goals.

Myth 2: Radiation therapy always causes bad side effects.

Fact: New technology means radiation treatment is now gentler and more precise than you may think.

Treatments like intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) and stereotactic radiosurgery (SRS) target cancer cells better than in the past. They use special tools to focus on cancer and spare healthy tissue or organs nearby. This improved accuracy means you'll have fewer side effects like tiredness or skin irritation.

Myth 3: Alternative treatments like acupuncture can cure cancer.

Fact: While some alternative therapies can help you feel better, there's no proof they can cure cancer.

Your cancer care team knows what works best based on research and experience. They can help you find therapies to ease your symptoms that work with your medical treatments. This could include working with a cancer dietitian, an integrative medicine provider, a palliative care team or other providers.

“I am always in support of complementary and integrative medicine to optimize health,” Woller says. “But it’s important to talk to an oncologist about treatment options before taking matters into your own hands.”

Woller remembers one patient with skin cancer who thought CBD oil could cure him. “He avoided seeing a doctor for over a year. During that time, what was initially curable spread and became and difficult to treat. He ended up dying later that year in his early 50s. It was very sad to see someone have such distrust in Western medicine when he could have benefitted from standard of care treatment.”

Woller encourages patients to talk to their provider about any home treatments they’re considering. “Some supplements can alter your metabolism to make chemotherapy more toxic, or less effective,” he says. And high doses of antioxidant supplements like turmeric may affect certain forms of chemotherapy or radiation treatment.  

Myth 4: Cancer is always caused by lifestyle habits like smoking or eating unhealthy foods.

Fact: Some everyday habits can raise your cancer risk, but it's not that simple.

Smoking, lack of physical activity and diet can make some cancers more likely, like lung or colon cancer. But others may happen because of changes in your genes passed down over generations.

Still others could be caused by your environment, including exposure to harmful chemicals or getting too much sun. And some types are linked to viruses or bacteria that cause certain health conditions.

“A healthy lifestyle, managing stress, getting enough sleep and supporting the immune system will always be recommended to reduce the risk of developing cancer and the risk of recurrence,” Woller says. “But there are so many causes, known and unknown. Even health nuts and organic farmers get cancer.”

“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, we try to shift the blame away from personal action. Instead, we focus on the present and how we can treat what we are dealt with.”

Myth 5: Cancer treatment always means surgery.

Fact: Cancer surgery is a common choice, but it's not always needed. Your care team may recommend radiation or chemo instead, or along with surgery.

Surgery is often used to remove a tumor, especially if it's easy to reach and the cancer hasn't spread. The latest advances include minimally invasive procedures and robotic-assisted technology. Using these approaches means smaller incisions, less pain and faster recovery.

But some types of cancer respond better with other options or when combined with surgery. Your care team might use radiation or chemo before surgery to make a tumor easier to remove. Or they may use them after surgery to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

Myth 6: Cancer treatment always makes you lose your hair.

Fact: Some treatments, like chemo or radiation, can cause hair loss. But not everyone's hair falls out. And recent improvements in treatment have made this side effect less common.

Lower doses and highly targeted treatment mean it’s less likely during radiation therapy. And a technique called scalp cooling, in which you wear a special cap during treatment, can protect your hair during chemo.

Myth 7: Cancer treatment always costs a lot of money.

Fact: Cancer treatment can include doctor visits, hospital stays, tests and medications — which can add up quickly. But there are ways to manage the costs. PeaceHealth has financial aid programs and cancer social workers to help. They can walk you through the details around what insurance covers and what other resources are available.

How to get trusted information

Living with cancer isn't something you have to do alone. Whenever you have a question, don't hesitate to reach out to your care team. They are here to support you, to share accurate information and to give you the best care possible.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of resources out there for educating yourself about cancer and cancer treatment,” Woller says. “But not all are based in evidence.”

He recommends looking to authoritative sources like the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, or Chemocare.

“As always,” he adds, “it’s useful to run any information you pull from the Internet by a trusted source, such as your primary oncologist.”

portrait of Jacob N. Woller NP

Jacob N. Woller NP

Hematology - Oncology
Family Medicine

Jacob “Jake” Woller, DNP, FNP-BC joined the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Cancer Center in 2023. His medical interests include hematology, oncology, palliative care, preventive care and cancer survivorship. Before becoming a nurse practitioner, Jake provided care to cancer patients in inpatient and outpatient settings as a certified oncology nurse for five years. He received his Doctorate in Nursing Practice as a Family Nurse Practitioner from the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont. He’s conducted research on drug development in Phase I and II clinical trials for cancer care. He also completed a project on assessing and reducing occupational and environmental exposure to hazardous drugs in cancer care as part of his doctorate studies. He also holds a degree in biochemistry from the University of Washington in Seattle. Jake practices medicine “to empower people to achieve the best quality of life possible.” “As a nurse practitioner, I enjoy the opportunity to provide comprehensive care, addressing the physical, mental and spiritual sides of patients,” he says. “I believe shared decision making is an important step in the process, listening to an individual’s story, their needs and offering the best evidence-based treatments for their health journey.” In his free time, Jake enjoys many activities including yoga, meditation, rock climbing, hiking, backpacking, Nordic skiing and cooking.