This is one myth I hadn't heard. But according to a survey published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2003, it's a common belief, especially among middle-aged and elderly men who have lung cancer or are at risk for it. Nearly 40% of those surveyed believed the above statement was true, though they couldn't remember if the source was one they trusted. This myth is a good example of how a misconception or faulty assumption can lead not only to the spread of misinformation, but also to bad medical decisions as well.
Those who believed the myth about how lung cancer spreads during surgery couldn't remember where they had heard it when asked by the researchers. My guess is that it evolved through a confusion of cause and effect and a misunderstanding about how tumors spread. It's common for people with lung cancer to have surgery (especially for non-small-cell types). At the time of surgery or even weeks to months later, it's discovered that the cancer spread. The first event (surgery) may be assumed to have caused the second event (spread or cancer) because of the timing.
Just as humans need air to live, it may be assumed (wrongly) that exposing a tumor to air will allow it to grow more quickly. It may also be true that people don't want surgery and look for any reason to avoid it. That could be why this myth is more appealing than it might otherwise be. Although the overall cure rate in lung cancer is not high, long-term survival is generally highest for those who have their tumor surgically removed.
Some myths don't matter much. After all, if a parent believes that wearing a jacket on a cool day will prevent pneumonia and encourages his or her child to wear a jacket, no harm is done and the child will probably be more comfortable. If you believe surgery will make your cancer spread, however, you may be inclined to refuse surgery. In fact, that's just what researchers found. Among those who believed in this misconception, nearly 25% stated that they would turn down surgery. Nearly as many said that even faced with scientific evidence to the contrary, they would still turn down surgery.
Perhaps when faced with the decision in real life, most people would have surgery. But this study is a chilling reminder of how difficult it is to change people's beliefs, even when they're give compelling evidence to the contrary.
A mistaken belief about how lung cancer spreads during surgery could deny a person the most effective treatment or even cure.
There are times when a person who's ill doesn't follow the advice or recommendations of a doctor. Sometimes the person's reasons are based on previous experience, fear, advice from friends or family, religious beliefs or cultural traditions. Sometimes they're based on misinformation. In my view, each person should make their own medical decisions but only after they have considered the best information given to them by healthcare professionals they trust. When someone makes a decision that differs from their doctor's advice, it's important to ask why. There will always be times when people don't follow a doctor's advice — but it should not be because of belief in a medical myth.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.