Lung cancer is by far the biggest cancer killer around the world. It will kill 157,000 Americans in 2003. In a recent survey researchers found that 38 percent of 626 patients they surveyed held this belief.
When broken down by race, 61 percent of the black and 29 percent of the white patients at five centers said they believed exposing a tumor to air would cause it to spread.
Most of the patients were male and tended to be elderly, and the poorer and less educated they were, the more likely they were to believe it.
The surveys were given to patients at lung clinics at three sites in Philadelphia, one in Los Angeles and one in Charleston, South Carolina. The data turned out to be very strikingly similar at all the sites.
"It suggests it is a nationwide phenomenon."
Researchers found that many patients refused to go see a surgeon, even when told they needed surgery to take out a lung cancer tumor.
"They say, 'Not only do I not want lung surgery, but I don't even want to see the surgeon because I know the cancer will spread once you expose it to air,"' they said.
In the survey, researchers asked patients where they got this idea.
"Most of the patients said very non-specific things, saying 'I heard it from the gossip mill' or 'I heard it from friends' or 'Everyone knows that'.
"Some cited personal experiences, saying their mom went for surgery and the surgeon said 'there was nothing we could do -- it spread."' People may then associate surgery itself with the spread, say researchers.
If non-small-cell-lung cancer, the most common type, is found and treated before it spreads, patients have a 50 percent chance of survival. But only 15 percent of patients are diagnosed early enough.
Patients need to be better educated about cancer, and doctors need to realize what the false perceptions are and how common they are.
"We have been encountering a number of misconceptions about lung cancer in general," he said. For instance, many patients do not believe that smoking causes lung cancer but instead maintain that exposure to some environmental chemical must be the cause.
"Another one we hear is 'I smoke and therefore if I am going to get cancer. It is all predetermined and therefore if I stop smoking it won't do any good,"' he added. "We know that stopping smoking does good."
Researchers say they would like to extend their study to other types of cancers, and to other beliefs about cancer.