Cancer: bad luck or bad journalism?


Recently, there’s been a lot of press about cancer being caused by bad luck, but is it?

There’s two questions we should consider. How accurate is the science? And then how accurately is the science being reported?

How accurate is the science?

Science is built around transparency and repeatability, with scientific papers being subject to rigorous peer review to examine their method, results and conclusions.

In this case, the scientists involved have picked up on a legitimate correlation between the risk of cancer arising in a particular organ and the number of cell divisions that occur in that organ. Lots of cell division = higher risk. It’s an interesting insight, but it doesn’t mean cancer is the result of bad luck.

How accurately is the science being reported? 

As with so much that goes on in the media, most of the articles I’ve seen on this topic have been nothing more than a rehash of other articles without too much thought or analysis.

All too often, “automatic content creation” replaces actual journalism. Whenever you see roughly the same information repeated mindlessly, you’re probably looking at a content aggregator rather than actual human content.

auto content creation

The great irony of the internet age is content is growing at an exponential rate but quality is falling away. In the 1900s, the consummate knowledge of mankind doubled every century, prior to that, such doubling is estimated to have occurred only once a millenia. By the end of World War II, our collective pool of knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Now, the amount of information in the world doubles every year.

The problem we face going forward is identifying trustworthy, reliable knowledge in the sea of verbiage. Automatic content creation is a plague on the internet. Best solution? Check the sources an article is based upon. No source = no value.

In this case, the science isn’t being accurately reported as the conclusion that cancer is the result of bad luck is not the conclusion of the study.

Yes, organs with lots of cell division carry a higher risk of developing cancer, but it’s a broad, general observation. Lifestyle (epigenetics) has a huge impact, as does genetics. Look closely at the published graph showing the results of this study. There’s a big clue in that one of these cancers is listed twice.

Cancer rates

Remember, this graph is logarithmic, meaning although the values on the axis look evenly spaced, they’re not. Each marked value is exponentially further away from the last value. 10^5 is a hundred thousand while 10^7 is ten million, and 10^9 is a billion, etc.

Now, look at lung cancer. There are two values, one for smokers the other for non-smokers. They’re not the same. Why? Because lifestyle choices make a MASSIVE difference, on the order of 18 times more difference when you do the math!

The cancer risk is 18 times higher in smokers than non-smokers. Since roughly 18 percent of the adult US population are smokers, this suggests that for lung cancer, about 75 percent of the risk is due to smoking — Guardian

No other cancer in this study has been broken down by known drivers.

The incidence of melanoma (skin cancer) is known to be directly linked to sun exposure damaging DNA. Split out those that developed melanoma after years of exposure to the sun against those that developed melanoma even though they protected themselves with sunscreen, hats, etc, and you’ll probably get a very similar result to the smoking/non-smoking difference. Also, genetics play a huge role in melanoma, with light skinned/fair haired people being far more susceptible to this cancer.

Another stand out is HPV as this is a cancer we know is caused by a virus, and we’ve developed a vaccine for it, yet it also ostensibly follows the pattern of cell division = higher risk. Clearly, there’s more research to be done and better categorizations to be made to take into account these other contributing factors.

Cancer is an astonishingly complex disease. There’s no silver bullet. There’s no simple answers, like “It’s all just bad luck.” But there is an abundance of wonderful research being done on how to prevent and how to treat cancer.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — Benjamin Franklin

Eat healthy meals. Exercise regularly. Avoid exposure to known carcinogens. Protect yourself from the sun, etc. None of that advice has changed with this study.

Don’t leave cancer to dumb, bad luck.

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5 thoughts on “Cancer: bad luck or bad journalism?

  1. As I read the articles being feed fed Yahoo and other aggregaters, I couldn’t help but think about how lazy and irresponsible it all is. It all comes down to clicks and time spent on site for many of these outlets. Also to look for that one “bad luck” trope only makes the anti-vaxxers or Whole Foods believers in the US to scream I told you so without doing any research on their own.

    If there was a way to publicly shame the writers and editors of the articles, I’d be all over it as they know in their heart that they don’t believe these “bad luck” explanations.

    • yeah, it does seem reminiscent of the “correlation doesn’t always equal causation” debate. Stem cell growth correlates with the incidence of cancer, but as the two lung cancer entries demonstrate, there are more factors coming in to play. I’d love to download the original dataset to see how these aggregate data points were derived, as the spread either side would be revealing. ie, the following number sets all average to 5 (5,5,5) (3,5,7) (1,5,9) but the last one shows a very wide spread. I’m curious to see how tightly grouped or spread the original data points are as a broad spread would indicate greater complexity underlying these various cancers.

      Thanks for stopping by Thinkingscifi 🙂

  2. Hi Peter,

    Yes, there are many problems with this research study, but please do not further the misinformation. Epigenetics has to do with process such as the methylation of DNA that effect gene expression. Epigenetics does not equal lifestyle.

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