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Annie Cavanagh/Emily Cho
Health & Medicine

Bacon? Cell Phones? It’s Rarely Just One Thing That Causes Cancer

Anyone who says they have the answer is lying.

Jolene CreightonMarch 5th 2018

If experts are to be believed, beer causes cancer. So does bacon. Cellular phones could cause cancer, but no one is really sure. So could the fluoride added to the water supply. Oh, and not exercising? Definitely causes cancer.

Fortunately, other things prevent it. Fruits and vegetables do a pretty good job. And so do nuts, according to Yale research published last week. Then there are the things that are murkier — beer could prevent cancer, but then again it could also cause it.

Headlines have been similarly contradictory. “Scientists have linked X to cancer.” We’ve seen it over and over and over. It’s an endless refrain, repeated more or less daily. Take a look at some of the highlights from just the last seven days:

Find this confusing? You’re not alone. And that’s all the more reason not to act on the advice of the latest headline.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America. If most headlines are to be believed, there is generally a single entity of a person’s lifestyle that, if altered in a specific way, can stave off the onset of the disease. However, decades of science have indicated that most cancers are complex diseases, caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors — it’s rarely just one thing in a person’s life that can be blamed as the cause. 

Putting too much stock in these headlines means that you’re probably paying too much attention to an element of your lifestyle that ultimately doesn’t make much of a difference — and neglecting holistic advice that is actually proven to work.

In short: Anyone who says they have the answer — an answer — is lying.

At face value, the science doesn’t appear to offer much clarity. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 300 activities and substances that could cause cancer, and nearly the same number that could prevent it. It is virtually impossible to keep track of all these things, and frankly, it’s not even worth the effort, since so much of that advice is contradictory anyway.

Here’s the thing that scientists know about these studies that the average reader does not: Each study is a very small part of a much larger picture. Scientists come to a conclusion bound by a specific set of parameters that open the door to further experimentation. Maybe an initial study was done in mice — its conclusion could be interesting, but that doesn’t mean it’s ready to be applied to humans. Or perhaps scientists found that two entities have a relationship, but they don’t yet know what that relationship is (does one thing cause another? or is there a third thing that causes both?).

If research is going to change the advice that doctors give to patients, the studies need to be validated and their conclusions proven over and over. So ultimately, true scientific progress can be found in the summary of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of studies. The nuanced recommendations that doctors give take all this into account, and are determined by panels of medical professionals.

You know what’s not nuanced, and usually not written by a doctor? A headline.

When it comes to preventing your own death, you shouldn’t put your faith — and definitely not your fate — in the latest thing to pop up on your news feed that you half-read while riding the train.

So, which kinds of simplistic advice should you incorporate into a healthy lifestyle? Probably just the stuff you learned in elementary school: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, and listen to your doctor.

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