Surprising Facts About Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

I enjoy speaking with groups about cancer. I usually talk about my personal experiences and then describe cancer more generally and answer questions. After doing this for more than ten years, I know that certain facts always surprise people in the audience. Here are some of those surprises:

If chemotherapy causes you to lose your hair, you’ll likely lose all of your body hair – even the hair in your nostrils. That’s why people on chemo sometimes have drippy noses. (The things we don’t appreciate until there’s a problem!)

  • If cancer metastasizes (or spreads) from one organ into another, it doesn’t become a second cancer. For example, if breast cancer spreads to a person’s lungs, the cancer within the lungs is not lung cancer, it’s breast cancer and is treated with breast cancer drugs.
  • The lifetime risk for developing cancer in the United States is now one in three for women, and one in two for men.
  • We often talk about cancer as being one disease, but there are more than 200 different types of cancer. They vary widely in terms of prognosis and impact on one’s life. And our progress in treating each cancer varies as well – testicular cancer can now be cured even if it’s relatively advanced. That’s not true for most other cancers.
  • Significant nausea from chemotherapy is now uncommon.
  • Lung cancer kills many more women than breast cancer.
  • The five year survival mark is not magical. Some cancers can return ten or more years later. But the risk of a recurrence goes down for each year that passes cancer-free.
  • The end of treatment is often as psychologically stressful as the beginning of treatment. Making the transition back to “normal” is often unexpectedly difficult and slow.
  • Fatigue is a nearly universal side effect of cancer treatment that people don’t appreciate until it knocks them on their butts.
  • Cancer is increasingly thought of as a chronic disease. We used to think that people were cured of cancer or they died. Now, people are often able to live with cancer for many years with a good quality of life.
  • People often think of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation as the three forms of cancer treatment. A fourth type of therapy -hormone therapy – can be just as important in the treatment of many types of breast, prostate, and other hormone-sensitive cancers.
  • Chemotherapy and/or radiation are now sometimes given before surgery for certain types of cancer, including breast and rectal cancers. Shrinking the tumor may reduce the scope of surgery that’s required.

From the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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