USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘cancer’
Folk Beliefs

Hands Mean Cancer?

The Main Piece
“If your hand is bigger than your face then it means you have cancer.” After hearing that one usually puts their hand in front of their face and the performer slaps the performee with their own hand.
Background Information
My informant is my roommate, Sarah Kwan. She is an undergraduate at USC and considers herself a hilarious person making people laugh at the jokes she tells. She enjoys telling this joke because she feels it is a “old-school classic.” She can recall when her own friend pulled the joke on her when she was in high school and has used it to prank others ever since. It was a good way for her to make groups of people laugh, although it did not work all the time. Because of its “classic”-ness many people had heard of it and did not find it amusing, however she continues to use it despite naysayers’ attitudes.
This joke was performed in front of me and a couple other of my roommates. Unfortunately, many of my roommates did not particularly enjoy the joke, but it was an ice breaker as we half heartedly laughed at the joke. This may have occurred because of the fact that we were only a couple of weeks into the school year and did not know each other too well.
Personal Thoughts
I felt her attempt to break the ice with this joke had good intentions even if it did not work out the way she expected it to. It also revealed to me the usefulness of a joke and how these joke would get passed down from person to person, not necessarily being told by one another as stories are, but in the way that pranks are pulled on each other, thus creating a chain reaction of jokes or pranks.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Microwave Fears

Click here for video.

“Something else my dad told me was that when you heat up food in the microwave, you can’t stand in front of it or you’ll get cancer. But I used to really like processed food, so I would always use the microwave and I would be really hungry so I’d stand in front of it and wait and he would get mad.”

The health belief that microwave radiation will induce cancer is something that I’ve heard before. I have also heard this belief applied to the tera-hertz radiation used in TSA body scanners. Many of my relatives from Taiwan have also mentioned this health belief about radiation in general.

As mankind has entered the nuclear era, harnessing the intramolecular forces for energy and weaponry, radiation has become a very real threat. Radiation often dominates our news and our history. Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Hiroshima have left very strong impressions on the global consciousness. This fear is perhaps intensified by the fact that radiation is an invisible force that none of us are capable of perceiving. We do not know when we are subjected to it and most of us do not understand the complexities of its various forms. So we’ve simply learned to fear the word “radiation”, associating it with all of the nuclear tragedies that has befallen mankind.

However, this fear of microwave radiation and tera-hertz radiation is unfounded. Microwave radiation and tera-hertz radiation are very different from the radiation that nuclear meltdowns produce. I once held the belief that microwaves could induce cancer. A physicist I worked with in high school told me that while high concentrations of microwave radiation might cook a human being from inside out, microwave radiation simple does not carry enough energy to do the genetic damage to induce cancer. The same applies to tera-hertz radiation.


Vecchia, Paolo. “Perception of Risks from Electromagnetic Fields: Lessons for the Future.” Journal of Biological Physics 29.2-3 (2003): 269-274.


Hand to face prank

Something she learned as a kid, my informant remembers this piece of folklore from middle school. The way it works is someone says that if your hand is bigger than your face, you have cancer. Then, when you put your hand up to your face to check, they push your hand into your face. It’s painful and annoying and it makes my informant remember why she hated things like that when she was younger, tricks kids would make up to hurt others. Because the kid the prank is pulled on fails to realize they’re being tricked, it becomes almost acceptable to hurt them. The pain comes as a result of the person’s failure to realize it’s a trick. This is why many people accept it when they get hurt from a prank like this, versus if someone randomly just hit you in the face, in which case you might less readily let it go. My informant remembered being a kid and not differentiating between the two cases, though. When a peer did this to her, her response was to kick him in the leg. The prank is something she hasn’t forgotten because it serves as a reminder of that human desire to hurt others and be in positions of power over them, where it becomes acceptable to hurt them. My informant dislikes that quality of humanity but finds it interesting that it exists and that things children do often reflect it.

The prank also acts as a kind of initiation into the group of people who know it. Once it’s been done to you, like a college hazing ritual for example, you want to do it to the person who doesn’t know about to get revenge upon whoever did it to you. And once the prank’s been done to you once, it can’t be repeated unless you forget how it works. This makes it not seem as bad, since even if it hurts you, it also teaches you what it is so you feel like you gained some knowledge from the experience. Humans learn from pain, and this is an example of that. The prank’s existence also shows how children like to push limits to see what’s socially acceptable. Mature adults would be less likely to perform this prank because it is against social codes to malevolently trick someone like that.