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Cancer Mythbusters

October 14, 2010 By:
Koe Kemp, JE Feature
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Very important information! Please do not delete! Send to your loved ones! Drinking cold water after a meal causes cancer!

What do you do when someone forwards you that email? You know the one. It's got a strident warning about an everyday, household item that Just Might Kill You! Included are a couple of anecdotes from people with letters for last names and quotes from a doctor with an impressive but unrecognizable series of letters after his name.

Most of us know that multi-multi-generational forwarded emails aren't worth our time. Hoaxes ("The American Cancer Society will donate 3 cents to cancer research for every fwd") and bad or misleading information are par for the course.

But when it comes to cancer, especially if we know someone who has or has had it, our emotions overtake our logic and we hit that "forward" button. It does make some sense. Cancer is both very scary and very complicated. It's nearly impossible to pinpoint a cause and attempted cures are sometimes only temporary or ineffective.

We'll touch on some of the more popular/goofy myths (see sidebar) floating around, but first, let's start with a primer for parsing the chatter regarding cancer claims in the zeitgeist.

Science!

We learn about our environment by studying, experimenting and replicating results. We don't do it alone, either. We ask others to check our work. Then we build upon information that's been accepted to be as close to true as necessary. It's complicated and sometimes messy and it's all in varying shades of gray, but scientific research and development have helped build our society and modern medicine has allowed us to live to a ripe old age to enjoy it.

Potential medical cures need to have the scientific method applied to them in order for us to understand them. This is why we rigorously test new medicines before bringing them to the market. That's why we continue to test even when a substance is in use. That's why science isn't magic. We've done the work to understand what's happening in the body as an effect of the substance we've added.

But we're also surrounded by information that sounds like science but isn't. People can say anything they want, and they do. Especially if they're trying to sell you something, be it a yoga DVD or blue algae pills.

Though the Internet is the primary (although all too frequently spurious) source for modern, tech-savvy consumers' health information (not to mention the always-reliable word-of-mouth and let's go ahead and blame TV while we're at it), it's also a valuable tool for reliable, consumer-level research. You just have to know where to look and who you can trust.

Check up

Where do you look when you encounter a cancer claim that smells a little fishy, or even one that's bandied about so much that it seems like it must be true (I'm looking at you, antioxidants)?

Www.snopes.com is a good first stop whenever you get one of those emails. Chances are, by the time you got it, Snopespeople Barbara and David P. Mikkelson have not only received it, but they've found the origin, learned the veracity and given you quotes with sources so you can seek out confirmation on your own.

A word of warning when researching on Snopes. It's so well-written and interesting that you'll find yourself looking up all kinds of things when you're supposed to be writing a story about, say, cancer myths.

The American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) has a great site that defines what cancer actually is (a host of different diseases that share pathological cell growth as a feature); what causes it (as the best and most current science explains it); and how we can fight it (including explanations and efficacy of different traditional and alternative treatments.)

The National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov), part of the government's National Institutes of Health, supports cancer research, promotes science-based treatments (for the most part, but more on that later) and is a storehouse of information. This includes sections on prevention of specific cancers.

The Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov) is a place to find out about some (not nearly all) of the scam treatments on which a patient can waste his or her money (and life).

PubMed (www.pubmed.gov) is the U.S. National Library of Medicine website. Here you can look up published articles about cancer or anything else that's been published in a magazine or journal on the medical topic of your choice. Often, you can't get the entire article, but the abstract will summarize the article fairly well and you will find out how you can find the original as well as the names of the authors and the publication.

There are plenty of other sites but, as always, be careful. Look for references to peer-reviewed journals, quotes from experts in the field in which they are being quoted, and links to reputable sources. Most definitely watch out for links to sites that sell over-the-counter cures.

The Watcher

James Randi is fighting cancer. He's also fighting cancer quackery. The octagenarian, a former professional magician, is a tireless fighter in the name of science and reason. He is the founder of the James Randi Education Foundation (www.randi.org) whose mission is to investigate claims of the paranormal and pseudoscience.

What alternative treatments was Randi, an outspoken and well-known skeptic, offered during his own period of cancer recovery? "Homeopathy, prayer, Tarot, reiki, colored light, chiropractic, the list goes on and on ..." All were refused.

Randi was also shocked to learn what was being offered as medical advice by his own government. "I've looked through all of the literature and almost invariably, anything published by the NIH in Washington, D.C., an official organ of the U.S. government will mention the fact that you should ask your physician about acupuncture. That is nonsense."

A strong claim, surely. One would think there was good, scientific evidence suggesting the efficacy of the millennia-old practice of placing needles in the skin to cure a host of ailments. Unfortunately, there isn't. Some studies point to an effectiveness for the pain and nausea associated with chemotherapy, but most show no relationship between acupuncture and any objective healing properties.

"What's the harm?" is always the question. In his typical, pointed style, Randi answers, "Quackery takes patients away from real therapy. And they die. That's a really bad symptom..."

David Gorski, M.D., Ph.D, blogs at Science-Based Medicine (www.sciencebasedmedicine.org). Acupuncture is a hot topic for the dozen or so medical professionals who provide the site's content. Gorski states, "As a cancer surgeon, I've dedicated myself to treating patients with cancer and then subspecialized even further, dedicating myself to the surgical treatment of breast cancer. Consequently, the interface of so-called 'Complementary and Alternative Medicine' in the treatment of cancer both interests and appalls me. The reason for my horror at the application of CAM to cancer patients, as you might expect, is that cancer is a disease that is highly feared and can be highly deadly, depending upon the specific kind of cancer. Cancer patients deserve nothing less than the best science-based evidence that we have to offer, free of pseudoscience."

Though thousands of studies of acupuncture have been conducted and published in the last hundred years, recent results of randomized, clinical, double-blind studies (where neither patient nor researcher knows who is receiving real vs. sham acupuncture) show no evidence for acupuncture's efficacy in pain management.

Eat up

Far more interesting and realistic is the diet-focused approach to cancer prevention that has become a more prominent part of the research community since the mid-1990s. As researchers have become convinced that they won't find a silver bullet cure for any cancer, they're finding that a shotgun is a better metaphor. But it will take some time for this new philosophy to filter down to the magazine articles and food retailers.

It is estimated by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research that 35 percent of all cancers are related to diet. When the groups co-published their Second Expert Report entitled Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective (www.dietandcancerreport.org) in 2009, it marked a watershed moment in food and cancer research. The report is the result of 5 years of work by over 100 scientists from more than 30 countries. The experts looked at current scientific evidence and used it to recommend goals for individuals and communities to work towards cancer prevention.

It also suggests a whole-foods-based approach be taken in cancer research as opposed to the nutrient-based approach that previously had been the focus of research.

The report says that maintenance of a healthy weight throughout life "may be one of the most important ways to protect against cancer." And physical activity is just as important. "All forms of physical activity protect against some cancers, as well as against weight gain, overweight, and obesity; correspondingly, sedentary ways of life are a cause of these cancers and of weight gain, overweight, and obesity. Weight gain, overweight, and obesity are also causes of some cancers independently of the level of physical activity."

Superfoods!

Websites such as The Cancer Cure Foundation (www.cancure.org) go into some detail in listing cancer fighting foods and spices. The problem is that it isn't a scientific site and its claims aren't backed by enough research. When a study finds that chemical compounds such as indole-3 (found in cruciferous vegetables) may be able to arrest cancerous cell growth, suddenly broccoli prevents cancer. While this may ultimately be proven true, the research doesn't exist to make that kind of claim. If someone does read this and then starts eating more fresh vegetables, that's good. But if they think they can do so and still smoke cigars and be 60 pounds overweight, they are gravely mistaken.

Many of the cancer-prevention claims associated with the foods we eat center on the food's antioxidant content. Antioxidants are molecules that the body can use to inhibit the oxidation of other molecules. Basically, they can be used to fill the space in a molecule that's missing an electron and has become unstable. The unstable molecule is known as a free radical, which is trying to steal an electron from another molecule, which then makes that molecule a free radical and so on. The potential chain reaction that follows is believed to lead to cell damage. The body has several sources of antioxidants present at all times, but the hope of food-based antioxidant proponents is that ingestion of those molecules will help the body to combat oxidation and hence disease.

Unfortunately, most recent clinical studies have not found a positive correlation between ingestion of antioxidant-rich foods and disease prevention.

Antioxidants include vitamins A, C and E. The jury is still out on vitamins, but recent research suggests that vitamin supplements don't help and it's suggested that we both can and should get our vitamins from our food. And blueberry-infused potato chips with antioxidants are still potato chips, no matter how blue they are.

Diet supplement companies are quick to jump on the bandwagon when a chemical compound shows some promise in the lab. Supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so there's no proof needed to show whether taking this or that pill will actually prevent any of the various diseases named in the product literature. And, once again, it's a bullet approach when a shotgun is needed.

What's for dinner?

Anticlimactically, the suggestions coming down from top cancer researchers regarding diet and cancer prevention can be roughly summed up with a quote from Michael Pollan's book, In Defense of Food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

That's it. There's no magic pill, no single food to cure cancer. It's not vitamin C, not E, not beta-carotene or fiber. It's also not asparagus or avocados or broccoli or red wine or black tea. It's a good, varied diet full of fresh fruit and whole grains coupled with moderate exercise. It's moderation and it's boring, but it works.

Mythbusters: Some of the most peculiar or egregious examples of email cancer quackery

Johns Hopkins Cancer Update: There are several junk emails with vital health information attributed to "John Hopkins Hospital" (the singular John being the first tipoff to its inauthenticity) making the rounds. In the "Cancer Update," you are advised that your body naturally contains cancer cells which can't be detected until they multiply into the billions; that your own immune system and diet are more effective at fighting cancer than radiation or chemotherapy, which are only temporary cures at best; and that you can starve cancer cells by changing your diet. The statements are followed by explanations of the underlying biology. The only problem is, these are incorrect or unverifiable claims. And the worst part is that the email warns you away from modern techniques that have kept millions alive and cancer-free. This viral email was so prevalent that the real Johns Hopkins issued a report calling the email a hoax and including a point-by-point rebuttal. The rebuttal is considerably longer than the original email because it also finds the grains of truth in it and offers less simple, more scientific reasons to be careful about the way you balance meats, vegetables, dairy, salts, sugars, etc. in your diet.

Which is the problem with science. Very little is definitive and further study can go on to reveal results that weren't expected or predicted. But that subjectivity has allowed us to go from leeches to lasers.

Artificial sweeteners, fluoridated water, antiperspirants: While the claims may have had some basis in reality, the overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that there is no credible reason to believe that any of these cause cancer.

Cell phones and electromagnetic fields: As of now, no evidence suggests that either one is a cancer risk. Numerous studies have shown no links and more are being conducted. It is suggested that children shouldn't play on or in close proximity to power lines (duh) and we all know that talking on your phone while driving is less safe than not doing so, but we do it anyway.

Asparagus: Don't cook it too much and it will be tasty and nutritious. However, it will not cure, prevent or cause cancer (no matter what your kids say about it.)

Water: You may freeze a plastic bottle of water. You may leave it in a hot car and then drink from it later. Feel free to drink water, hot or cold with your meal. None of these practices are known to cause cancer. None are linked to cancer in the least. That said, current evidence suggests that plastics made with BPA can leach the chemical into our food and water at an alarmingly high rate. Be sure to carefully read recommended uses of all plastic products.

Yoga: Proponents say it's a cancer preventative. Doctors say it might help alleviate some symptoms. Being that it's exercise, it's one of many ways to maintain a healthy body weight, which researchers agree is indeed a preventative measure we should all take.

Joseph Kemp is the design director for Special Sections.

 

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