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Cancer myths that won’t go away

While science continues to make progress in the war on cancer, some widely held notions about cancer just won’t go away. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), some of the most persistent myths are:

  • Coffee causes cancer. A study from several years ago implied that drinking coffee increased the risk of pancreatic cancer. Now, after numerous follow-up studies, the ACS says there is “no relationship at all” between coffee and pancreatic, breast or other cancers.
  • Food additives cause cancer. The minute levels of additives in today’s vast assortment of foods have been approved for consumption only after stringent FDA tests. They give flavor, texture and color to foods and extend the shelf life of many products. The ACS says “no convincing evidence exists” that food additives cause cancer.
  • Antiperspirants cause cancer. This myth claims antiperspirants close off sweat glands in the armpits and actually force toxins into our lymph nodes, where they accumulate over time and damage DNA in cells. These damaged cells then supposedly become cancerous. The ACS and other experts say: Keep applying your antiperspirant. They’ve been used by millions of people since the 1960s and there is no evidence they cause cancer. Curiously, no one’s sure which “study” discovered this alleged link.
  • Cell phones cause cancer. Despite worries that cell phones induce brain tumors, several high-profile studies have failed to find a link, and research is continuing. Recently a Danish study again found no increase in any cancer symptoms, not just of the brain. The ACS presently sees no reason for concern but cautions that long-term effects won’t be known for several more years.
  • Fluoride causes cancer. Since the 1950s, America’s drinking water has been supplemented with traces of fluoride, known to strengthen teeth and prevent cavities. Reports have surfaced from time to time implicating fluoride in various oral and throat cancers. The ACS says that study after study has proven fluoride completely safe; no study has ever found reason to suspect fluoride is a carcinogen.
  • Artificial sweeteners cause cancer. Since the first scare in 1969, when cyclamate was implicated for causing tumors in mice, tests on artificial sweeteners have occasionally generated headlines. (It was later disclosed that the mice had been given the cyclamate equivalent of 800 cans of diet soda per day for several weeks). As of now, the ACS says there is no compelling evidence of a sweetener-cancer link in humans. The U.S. National Toxicology Program removed saccharin from its list of human cancer-causing agents. A third common sweetener, aspartame, shows “no increased risk for cancer,” the ACS notes.
  • Bioengineered foods cause cancer. For now, the ACS says there is no evidence that bioengineered foods are harmful. These genetically enhanced foods—livestock feeds, certain fruits and vegetables—are more resistant to insects and diseases and often are more nutritious and flavorful. Few bioengineered foods have made it to the supermarket, however, and extensive research into their effects on health is under way.