The Mythology of Prostate Cancer

Like most varieties of cancer, prostate cancer has a complicated mythology surrounding its prevention and treatment. Perhaps the cruelest myth about prostate cancer is that it is not really very serious, and no one dies from it.  In fact, prostate cancer is the second leading cause of death by cancer among men, exceeded only by lung cancer.

Type “prostate cancer” into Google, and you’ll find plenty of mythology claiming the cause or the cure for prostate cancer has finally been discovered—just avoid red meat or drink less milk, and you’ll never develop prostate cancer.  Eat broccoli, drink pomegranate juice, or take extract of saw palmetto supplements, and you’ll be cured of your prostate cancer “naturally.”  Type the hashtag #prostatecancer into Twitter, and you’ll stumble on multiple tweets claiming that daily masturbation in early adulthood can prevent prostate cancer, or that vasectomies cause prostate cancer, or that a program of daily meditation after diagnosis can cure it.

Profiting from Cancer Myths

Seekers of eternal youth, we baby boomers are quick to adopt natural foods or exercise plans that promise big benefits, making us ripe targets for do-it-yourself cancer remedies.  Many of these “cancer cures” are promoted by medical quacks, touting their own personalized products, usually in the form of designer herbal supplements or books full of diet and exercise programs—books and pills you must, of course, purchase.

When we’re thinking clearly, most baby boomers are intelligent consumers who can spot a bad investment.  But a cancer diagnosis is about the most emotionally fraught event of our lives.  Many of us have probably gone online at least once and been tempted to buy something—anything—that might help us get well. There are many sketchy profiteers who understand how desperate a man with prostate cancer can become.

Cancer Myths in the Media

But cancer myths extend beyond profit-seeking predators.  Often this mythology originates with medical trials that get a lot of press when they’re announced, but are later discredited, usually to little fanfare.  Sometimes a single flawed study that receives a lot of media attention can influence public opinion in ways that are difficult to correct later.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center recently published an article outlining some of the most common myths associated with prostate cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment:

  • Eating tomato-based products—like ketchup and pasta sauce—can prevent prostate cancer (Most studies show no association between consumption of these foods and cancer incidents).
  • High levels of testosterone levels in men can lead to prostate cancer (While there is a correlation between high levels of estrogen and breast cancer, studies have shown no similar link between high testosterone levels and prostate cancer).
  • The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil decrease the risk of prostate cancer (While intuitively this makes sense, since omega-3s are known to decrease inflammation, which is associated with prostate cancer, studies have actually found a link between fatty-acid levels and high-grade, aggressive prostate cancers).
  • Dietary supplements can prevent prostate cancer (Studies investigating supplements have either found no effect on prostate cancer, or a slightly increased risk with some supplements, like vitamin E.)
  • After a prostate cancer diagnosis, doctors can’t tell the difference between aggressive and less aggressive tumors (Actually, doctors have a very good sense of whether prostate cancer has a low risk of progression or a high probability of spreading to other parts of the body. PSA levels and Gleason scores are both indicators of this.)

The Consequences of Prostate Cancer Myths

Clearly, these prostate cancer myths go beyond circulating false hope—in some cases, they can actually be harmful. If a man is taking fish oil supplements to prevent prostate cancer, and he is, in fact, increasing his risk of developing an aggressive form of the disease sometime in the future, then the mythology is potentially deadly.

With medical studies being released so frequently to our health-obsessed boomer generation, how can we make sure that the information is reliable and that what we are getting is something we should believe and on which we should act? How does one stay current in the rapidly-changing sea of medical information available to the American public?

SOURCE: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, “Prostate Cancer: Six Things Men Should Know About Tomatoes, Fish Oil, Vitamin Supplements, Testosterone, PSA Tests—and More,” 22 August 2012, (Accessed 28 August, 2012).

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