Debunking Cancer Myths #3 : Cancer Is Contagious

It is an absolute fact that cancer is not contagious.  That means cancer does not spread from one person to another.

As a medical student in the early 1990s, I first came across patients with cancer in the wards of the large government hospital where we were posted.  One of them was a dignified elderly man, with a large sore involving his entire right foot.  He had Marjolin’s ulcer, a skin cancer that can develop in long-standing scars – in his case the scar of a snake bite in childhood.

Over the course of his stay in the hospital, I observed his “prepping” for surgery, the surgery itself (an amputation of his leg just below the knee), and subsequent recovery, which took about a week. He was provided with a pair of wooden crutches, and planned for a prosthetic leg – a low-cost “Jaipur foot.”

General hospitals at that time were a beehive of social activity, with throngs of people visiting sick relatives.  But not for this man – apart from the mandatory presence of a relative during the day of surgery, he had absolutely no visitors.

The day before his discharge, I struck up a conversation with him.  It turned out he was a widower, but had four adult children and several grandchildren.  I asked him who was going to help him till he adapted to his prosthetic leg.  Very matter-of-factly he told me, “That’s the difficult part – because I have cancer.”

I did not understand.  I asked him “What does that mean?”

“I have cancer – so they are afraid.”

“Afraid of what?  Don’t they know that cancer is not contagious?”

His response was a smile – as if I was too young and naive to understand.

Nearly 30 years later, despite many advances in society, this phenomenon is still distressingly common.

Why do people, even loved ones, sometimes shun a person with cancer? Is it because they believe that they could contract the disease? Nothing is farther from the truth. Or is it simply because they are afraid of a disease that they don’t understand?

People with cancer are physically and emotionally vulnerable.  It is a societal failure if they are denied empathy and support when most needed.


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