Health Myths: Get the Facts

You may be making health decisions based on incorrect or outdated information. Make sure that your sources for health information are current and accurate. Also, check with your health care provider if you have any questions about living a healthier life.

You CAN take simple steps everyday to protect yourself against illness and disease. It is important to get appropriate health screenings to find potential problems early and get proper treatment to prevent more serious problems later. Know that the health choices you make can also impact the health of others.


Myth: Cancer cannot be prevented.

Fact: Scientists estimate that as many as 50 percent or more of cancer deaths in the United States are caused by social and environmental conditions and unhealthy choices. These conditions and choices can result in an unhealthy diet, obesity, or unhealthy human behaviors such as smoking and physical inactivity. We now know more about how to prevent many cancers including cancers of the lung, cervix, colon, rectum, and skin.

In general, the factors that can help prevent cancer include:

  • not using cigarettes or other tobacco products
  • avoiding second-hand smoke
  • not drinking too much alcohol
  • avoiding weight gain and maintaining a healthy weight
  • eating five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables and a low-fat diet
  • balancing calories with physical activity
  • being physically active
  • protecting skin from sunlight
  • supporting community efforts to develop a healthy social and physical environment

Breast Cancer

  • Researchers estimate that a fourth to a third of breast cancers in postmenopausal women may be due to physical inactivity and overweight/obesity.*
  • Mammography is the best available method to detect breast cancer in its earliest, most treatable stage— an average of 1 to 4 years before a woman can feel a lump. Women aged 40 years or older should have a screening mammogram every 1 to 2 years.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Limiting weight gain during childhood and adulthood is likely to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Losing weight if overweight may also reduce risk.
  • Regular physical activity is likely to reduce the risk of breast cancer.
  • Community efforts to increase physical activity, such as school-based physical education programs and creation of walking trails, can contribute to increased physical activity in your community.


Cervical Cancer

  • Cervical cancer can usually be prevented if women are screened regularly at least every three years with a test called the Pap test. The Pap test can find abnormal cells in the cervix. These cells may, over time, turn into cancer, and could take many years to happen. If the results of a Pap test show there are abnormal cells that could become cancerous, a woman can be treated. In most cases, this treatment prevents cervical cancer from developing.
  • Pap tests can also find cervical cancer early. When it is found early, the chance of being cured is very high. When it is found early and treated, cervical cancer is highly curable. The most important thing you can do to avoid getting cervical cancer is to have regular Pap tests.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) is known to cause cervical cancer. It’s recommeneded that women over the age 21 be tested with pap every 3 years. Once over age 30, there is an option of continuing paps every 3 years vs having testing every 5 years with pap and HPV or HPV testing alone.
  • Abnormal cells in the cervix and cervical cancer don't always cause symptoms, especially at first. That's why getting tested for cervical cancer is important, even if there are no symptoms.
  • Community efforts to increase access to and use of cancer screening can lead to greater cancer screening in your community.

Colorectal Cancer

  • If you're 50 or older, getting a screening test for colorectal cancer could save your life.
  • Colorectal cancer usually starts from polyps in the colon or rectum. A polyp is a growth that shouldn't be there. Over time, some polyps can turn into cancer.
  • Screening tests can find polyps, so they can be removed before they turn into cancer. Screening tests can also find colorectal cancer early. When it is found early, the chance of being cured is good.
  • Researchers estimate that a fourth to a third of colorectal cancer may be due to physical inactivity and overweight/obesity.*
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Limiting weight gain during childhood and adulthood is likely to reduce risk of colorectal cancer and losing weight if overweight may reduce risk.
  • Regular physical activity is likely to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Community efforts to increase physical activity, such as school-based physical education programs and creation of walking trails, can contribute to increased activity in your community. Community efforts to increase access to and use of cancer screening can lead to greater cancer screening in your community.


Lung Cancer

  • Avoiding tobacco use is the single most important step Americans can take to reduce the cancer burden in this country.
  • Secondhand smoke is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer and coronary heart disease in nonsmoking adults. Secondhand smoke is a known cancer-causing agent.
  • Quitting smoking has immediate as well as long-term benefits, reducing risks for diseases caused by smoking and improving health in general.
  • Community efforts to limit smoking, such as indoor smoking policies and cigarette taxes, can help reduce smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.

Skin Cancer

  • Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays appears to be the most important environmental factor involved in the development of skin cancer. When used consistently, sun-protective practices can prevent skin cancer.
  • Although anyone can develop skin cancer, some people are at particular risk, including those with light skin color, hair color, or eye color; family history of skin cancer; personal history of skin cancer; chronic exposure to the sun; history of sunburns early in life; certain types of moles or a large number of moles; and freckles, which indicate sun sensitivity and sun damage.
  • Protect your skin from the sun, by choosing five sun protection options: seek shade, cover up, get a hat, wear sunglasses, and rub on sunscreen.

Breast and Cervical Cancer Screening: Free or Low-Cost Mammogram and Pap Test Contacts

Cancer Prevention and Control

Cervical Cancer Screening

Colorectal Cancer: Basic Facts on Screening

Lung Cancer

Skin Cancer and Melanoma Awareness

Skin Cancer: Preventing America's Most Common Cancer

Skin Cancer Primary Prevention and Education Initiative

Smoking: The Health Consequences of Smoking: Surgeon General's Report, 2004

Smoking: Secondhand Smoke

About the National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program

Cancer Information Summaries: Prevention 

Steps to a Healthier You

*Weight Control and Physical Activity: International Agency for Research on Cancer- Handbooks of Cancer Prevention, 2002


Myth: There's nothing you can do to prevent type 2 diabetes.

Fact: Diabetes prevention is proven, possible, and powerful. Studies show that people at high risk for type 2 diabetes can prevent or delay the onset of the disease by losing 5 to 7 percent of their body weight. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, losing only 10 pounds could make a difference. You can do it by eating healthier and getting 30 minutes of physical activity 5 days a week.


Type 2 diabetes, formerly called adult-onset or noninsulin-dependent diabetes, is the most common form of diabetes. People can develop type 2 diabetes at any age, even during childhood. This form of diabetes usually begins with insulin resistance, a condition in which fat, muscle, and liver cells do not use insulin properly.

More than 18 million Americans have diabetes, and 5.2 million cases are undiagnosed. An estimated 41 million U.S. adults aged 40–74 have prediabetes—that is, their blood sugar level is elevated but is not high enough to be classified as diabetes. People with prediabetes are at high risk for developing diabetes.

Diabetes can cause heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, pregnancy complications, lower-extremity amputations, and deaths related to flu and pneumonia. Heart disease is the leading cause of diabetes-related deaths, and death rates are about 2–4 times higher for adults with diabetes than for those without the disease.

Diabetes & Me: Prevent Diabetes

Diabetes Prevention

Am I At Risk for Type 2 Diabetes? (Non-CDC site)

Environmental Health

Myth: You can't prevent spreading illness on a cruise.

Fact: Each year millions of U.S. citizens enjoy cruise vacations. According to the Cruise Line International Association, in 2003, approximately 8.3 million passengers embarked from North American ports for their cruise vacation. Traveling on cruise ships exposes people to new environments and high volumes of people, including other travelers. Although an infrequent occurrence, this exposure creates the risk for illness, either from contaminated food, water, or - more commonly - through person to person contact. Follow these tips to help prevent the spread of illness:

  • Wash your hands before and after eating, after touching your face and going to the bathroom, and when your hands are dirty.
  • Leave the area if you see someone get sick (vomiting or diarrhea) and report it to the cruise staff. You could become sick if you ingest contaminated particles that travel through the air.
  • Take care of yourself. Get plenty of rest and drink lots of water. Resting helps rebuild your immune system. Drinking water helps prevent dehydration.
  • Be considerate of other people's health. If you're ill before taking a cruise, call the cruise line to determine if there are alternative cruising options.

Cruising Tips

Handwashing Tips and Techniques



Myth: Adults don't need immunizations unless they are traveling outside the country.

Fact: Vaccines aren't just for travelers and kids. Far too many adults become ill, are disabled, and die each year from diseases that could easily have been prevented by vaccines. Thus, everyone from young adults to senior citizens can benefit from immunizations. Vaccines help prevent infectious diseases and save lives. Vaccines are responsible for the control of many infectious diseases that were once common in this country, including polio, measles, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), rubella (German measles), mumps, tetanus, and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

Vaccines for adults include:

  • Tetanus-Diphtheria: all adults, every 10 years
  • Influenza (flu): adults at risk and all those 50 and older
  • Pneumococcal: adults at risk and all those 65 and older
  • Hepatitis A and B: adults at risk
  • Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR): susceptible adults
  • Varicella (chickenpox): susceptible adults
  • Vaccines for travelers

Adolescent and Adult Immunization Quiz

Adult Immunization Schedule

Vaccine-Preventable Adult Diseases

Pregnancy and Reproductive Health

Myth: Birth defects cannot be prevented.

Fact: Approximately 3000 pregnancies per year in the United States are affected by serious birth defects of the brain (anencephaly) or spine (spina bifida). Up to 70% of these defects can be prevented if a woman consumes the B vitamin folic acid daily before pregnancy and through the first trimester. The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women who can become pregnant consume 400 micrograms of folic acid daily to help prevent these serious birth defects. Since half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it is important to take folic acid every day!

Folic Acid

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs and HIV/AIDS)

Myth: If you don't have any symptoms, you don't have a sexually transmitted disease/sexually transmitted infection (STD/STI).

Fact: Many STDs/STIs are asymptomatic- without signs or symptoms- while serious damage is being done to a woman's reproductive organs. The only way to know for sure if you are or are not infected is to be tested. If you suspect you have a sexually transmitted infection or if your sexual partner has symptoms, you can go to your doctor or health department for testing. Talk with a knowledgeable health care provider or counselor both before and after you are tested.


The surest way to avoid transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual contact or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected.

The following STDs may be asymptomatic:

Bacterial Vaginosis



Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)



Smoking and Tobacco

Myth: Low-tar or light cigarettes are not as harmful as regular cigarettes.

Fact: There is no safe tobacco product. The use of any tobacco product can cause cancer and other adverse health effects. This includes all forms of tobacco, including cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and spit tobacco; mentholated, "low-tar," "naturally grown," or "additive-free." The poisonous ingredients in cigarettes aren't just limited to tar and nicotine. A typical cigarette contains lead, ammonia (a household cleaner), arsenic (used in rat poison), benzene (used in making gas), butane gas, carbon monoxide (a poisonous gas), DDT (a banned insecticide), and polonium 210 (cancer-causing radioactive element). To reduce your risk for lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, and reproductive health problems, avoid all tobacco products and exposure to second-hand smoke.

Light Cigarettes Myth

Women and Smoking: A Report of the Surgeon General


Myth: Rape doesn't happen very often.

Fact: Rape and attempted rape happen more often than you may think. According to the National Violence against Women survey, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in the United States have experienced an attempted or completed rape at some time in their lives. In 8 out of 10 rape cases, the victim knew the perpetrator. The first step in preventing sexual violence is to identify and understand vulnerability factors. A vulnerability factor is anything that increases the likelihood that a person will suffer harm. Vulnerability factors for sexual violence include: young age, drug or alcohol use, prior history of sexual violence, multiple sex partners, and poverty.

Sexual Violence

Sexual Violence: Prevention Strategies and Links

The Truth about Rape

WebMD Public Information from the CDC


SOURCE: CDC: "Health Myths: Get the Facts."