Everything gives you cancer…and also helps you live longer

Abstract: Why everything gives you cancer…and also helps you live longer…

There can be few things guaranteed to put off a potential reader of an article more than the headline ‘Everything gives you cancer’, especially in a Sunday newspaper magazine where they’re looking for something light, relaxing and entertaining to read. So let me rise to the challenge; besides something tells me you already have a sneaking suspicion where this story is heading.

One of the biggest challenges for science journalists such as myself – those who dabble at the craggy interface of science and society – is that every time we write something we have to win over an audience who may not necessarily be interested in science. We have to do so by writing wonderfully engaging copy and surreptitiously slipping in a little science. It’s like wrapping a pill in bacon so that the dog will eat it.

The easiest way in the world to do this is to tap into known human fears, and there is no greater fear than the fear of dying; so headlining a story that ‘X’ gives you a dreaded disease that we all know someone has, or has had, is a guaranteed way of grabbing a reader’s attention. The most common such disease that, it seems, can strike anyone at anytime, is cancer. The secret then is to link the possibility of developing this disease to a common, preferably, enjoyable experience or behaviour. Example: “Nose picking linked to cancer!”

Even more effective though is if the same experience can be linked to a reduction in the likelihood of developing cancer, because we’d all like to know that we can reduce the risk of developing a dreaded disease by not having to change our lifestyle. Imagine, then, the thrill of reading a story headlined “Nose picking beats cancer!”

I was reminded of this not so long ago when I read a piece that claimed “Coffee makes you live longer!” The reality of course is that coffee doesn’t make you live longer. Nothing in the world makes you live longer. A healthy lifestyle will increase the possibility of you not suffering the ill effects of living an unhealthy lifestyle; but that doesn’t mean that if you eat fresh fruit and vegetables and exercise daily you won’t have a heart attack or stroke, or develop cancer.

What is also a reality is that given the common human fear of contracting cancer, and the popularity of drinking coffee – caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive drug in the world – saying that you can reduce your chances of developing a feared disease by simply doing something you delight in, is enjoying the best of both worlds; and what better news could there be than that?

Of course, the history of such science coverage in the media has shown that any euphoria generated by learning that drinking coffee will help prevent cancer will soon be cut short by a headline screaming “Coffee gives you cancer!”

Don’t laugh. If you were to search the pages of such coverage of science you’d discover that almost everything we enjoy consuming, whether it be food or other products such as deodorants and face creams, has at one stage or other been either a contributor to an increased risk of cancer, or part of a regime of healthy living; invariably even both. Science, it seems, isn’t sure what causes cancer.

There’s a certain element of truth in that. Cancer is an incredibly complex disease that is influenced by a myriad genetic, molecular and other biological variables, as well as numerous external factors associated with lifestyle and the physical environment; and, more worryingly, the virtually incalculable permutations of all of them. There are also so many different types of cancer, affecting different parts of the body. Furthermore, sometimes human cells just don’t behave like they’re supposed to, and tumours form for no apparent reason whatsoever.

This means research into cancer has to be done by thousands of researchers examining every possible individual link, no matter how seemingly small; who continually publish their findings, hoping to contribute to a greater understanding – a more detailed picture – of the disease.

The problem comes in the interpretation; or to use a well-worn phrase: the devil is in the detail. The findings are often misrepresented by those unqualified to interpret the data as proof of some kind of direct causative relationship. Throw in a sub-editor who knows that shock sells papers, and you get a headline like “Deodorants linked to cancer!”

The matter isn’t helped by the spin-doctors of research facilities, under pressure to highlight their work for the benefit of attracting funding, pitch results to the press in a way that helps secure them column space – often to the annoyance of the actual researchers.

The reality is, yes, science doesn’t know everything. If it did, it would stop. But that doesn’t mean that the current gaps in research should be filled with paranoia, speculation, pseudoscientific scaremongering, and shoddy reporting capitalising on the intensity of human fears.

The good news is that complex though cancer may be, it is unquestioningly beatable, and science is catching up.

So, enjoy your coffee, generously daub your armpits with deodorant, and enjoy life sensibly; because everything doesn’t give you cancer.

And celebrate by telling your friends; just don’t phone them. You know what they say about cellphones!

Originally published in the Sunday Tribune, 23 September 2012