The Cancer of ignorance

Posted on: 06 June 2011 by Alexander Hay

We need a better quality of debate on this serious subject

Some fittingly unphotogenic kidney carcinoma cells

What to do about Cancer? Everything and nothing seems to cause it. Mobile phonesdietairpetsdirtsoapeating meateating vegetablestoo much sunlightnot enough sunlightbeing whitebeing blackbeing orangewaterdehydration...

Actually, the only real cause of cancer is being alive. It is, after all, caused by cellular abnormalities and since there are more than 100 types of cell in the human body and any number of possible interactions between out genes, it's touch-and-go as to whether we DON'T get it in one for or another. What we eat or drink or do or choose where and how to live simply prods the communication between our cells in the right or wrong direction. We are sometimes too intricate for our own good.

The media, however, can't quite get its tiny little head around this, or simply can't be bothered to. So instead we have a constant torrent of stories about how something might five us cancer, or how what we though was harmless will in fact kill us or the scandal of such-and-such making whoever die younger than they should.

The point to remember, however, is that the media only reports unusual stories. If lots of people died of cancer at the same rate that they die of malaria every year, it wouldn't be news. (It's disturbing to realise how Stalinesque the media's approach to death really is.) 

Secondly, if cancer's out to get us, it's not doing a very good job. Remission rateslife expectancy and detection are all now higher than they've ever been. That tumour that may or may not be trying to do you in has its work cut out.

The other problem is that most of the public, and that includes journalists, don't know the first thing about science. Not wanting to intrude too much into Ben Goldacre's territory, it still needs to be said that science, especially medical science, is one of the worst reported areas in our media.

'Scientists say...' or 'new research reveals...' should always be read as 'journalists and sub editors are talking nonsense'. Medical research, like other scientific endeavours, is based on finding that often contradict and contrast with each other, as a slow but thorough process of peer review gradually moves towards a better understanding of something.

All those 'latest findings' are simply the steps towards that understanding, the best possible reading of someone's research that is possible given the time and circumstances (and indeed funding), and it is always possible that some else's findings the week after will blow that 'swan spit gives you leukemia' hypothesis clear out of the water. 

Shoddy coverage of the kind that makes people panic about AIDSBSE and the MMR vaccine is proof enough that most journalists shouldn't be let near an Archimedes screw, let alone a Cancer ward.

We need, then, to accept several things about Cancer. We need to be healthy, but there's something deeply unhealthy about obsessing over illness. The odds of us surviving what used to be unsurvivable are getting better all the time. And frankly, if you get your information about any disease from The Daily Mail, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Instead, we all need to learn more about science and how it works, if only so we can at least have a realistic view of our frailties and whether or not modelling clay will make your hair fall out. The citizen science movement has promise, but so too does simply typing 'scientific method' into a search engine and, for once, letting yourself be informed, and not alarmed.

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Alexander Hay

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