Cancer, The Media, And The Misinterpretation Of Scientific Studies

For more than a century it’s been recognized that some types of human tissue allow the proliferation of cancer cells more readily than others. In fact, across the world, millions of times more every single year.

Recently, there was a study that agrees with this fact. But it caused some controversy because of the study’s findings, mostly because of the way it was worded. I want to show you how a typographical error led to worldwide headlines that were simply untrue.

It’s a classic example of how journalists and others just read the headline and maybe the executive summary, don’t really understand what is being said, and then publish it with lurid headlines. It’s the same with climate science where a marginal “what if” suddenly becomes “We are all going to die in five years”.

The situation was that there was a strong correlation in the lifetime risk of cancers in the certain types of cell. The results suggested that only 1/3 of the variation in cancer risk was attributable to environmental factors, or inherited cancer risk.

This was the crucial part of the summary:

“The majority is due to “bad luck,” that is, random mutations arising during DNA Replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells. This is important only for understanding the disease also designing strategies to limit the mortality and causes.”

The typographical error was in the last sentence of the paper, and said:

“Primary prevention measures are not likely to be effective for 22 cancers, including melanoma.”.

In conjunction with the summary, it gave the impression that the paper was concluding that most cancer was bad luck, rather than lifestyle or environmentally driven.

Eventually, the study co-author, and a medical statistician at John Hopkins University, Christian Tomasetti, said that the wording should actually have been:

“Primary prevention measures are not as likely to be effective…”.

As you can see, without the additional “as”, the meaning of the sentence changes somewhat. Although it’s since been corrected in the revised study, misleading headlines and misrepresentations proliferated rapidly.

What Else Was Wrong With This Bad Luck Cancer Study?

The whole situation was actually made worse by the press release about the study, which stated in its headline:

“Bad luck of random mutations places predominant role in cancer, study shows…”

However, the study was actually titled:

“Variation in cancer risk among tissues can be explained by the number of stem cell divisions” So even the headline in the press release was misleading in comparison to the actual title of the study itself, so there was little wonder in my mind that people seized on it as they did.

Some of the mainstream news headlines in the weeks after included:

“Most cancer types just bad luck”

“Most types of cancer just bad luck, researchers say”

“Most cancers are caused by bad luck not genes or lifestyles, say scientists”

“Scientists: random gene mutations primary cause of most cancers”

As you can see, none of those headlines is true at all. That’s not what the scientists said in the study at all.

The Media Just Grab The Summary and publish misleading headlines

I’ve seen this problem hundreds of times over the years. I’m interested in science and I will read papers routinely when they are launched on many topics.

Then I see a really outrageous headline in the media, and wonder how on earth they came to the conclusion they did.

The problem is that scientific papers are released with an executive summary and conclusion. They also have a press release with a headline and a variation of the executive summary.

These are basically all that the journalists read. In addition, people have an agenda. They will look for something that fits their point of view, be it stem cell research, abortion, cancer research, climate change, alcoholism, SARMs and sporting supplements, whatever it is, people will twist the truth to fit their agenda on safety, or danger.

It’s the same with the IPCC climate reports. Most journalists only ever read the “summary for policymakers”, and unfortunately, a lot of the policymakers only read that as well, rather than what’s actually being said in the hundreds of pages after it.

So What’s The Truth About Bad Luck And Cancer?

Let me fill you in on the details here. Of the 31 types of cancer the researchers looked at, they determined that 22 could be classified as “bad luck” cancers.

Nine others had rates that were considerably higher than would be expected from cell division alone. Researchers said that that was probably due to habits, pollution, or even genetics. All of this is well known. Lung cancer and skin cancer were to examples of this type of cancer.

The conclusion was: “our study shows, in general, the change in the number of stem cell divisions in a tissue type is highly correlated with the change in the incidence of cancer in the same tissue.”

Scientists took issue with the study and the sensationalist headlines, and said it was dangerous to tell people that major cause of cancer were down to bad luck and that cancer was not preventable.

It looks like it was just a bad choice of words. It’s not “bad luck”, so much as “unexplainable factors”, of which are percentage would be down to sheer bad luck in cancer cell proliferation. For example, inheriting dodgy genes is bad luck.

It could also be argued that it was bad luck to be a smoker before the dangers of smoking were known, although that’s slightly less arguable.

This Inaccurate Reporting And Poor Interpretation Applies To Other Things As Well

So the truth is that most cancer isn’t just bad luck. But some cancer proliferation is unexplained, and down to what could generally be called “luck”.

But that doesn’t mean people should give up on trying to halt the progress of cancer. The truth is that most cancer is preventable. Lifestyle and environmental choices are definitely a huge factor.

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, it all boils down to the fact that the more often a cell divides, the more chance there is of something bad eventually happening to it, basically it mutates into cancer cells in a higher percentage of cases.

This is a classic example of medical research that was badly worded and reported badly. The scientists can partly be forgiven because they are writing for clarity and purpose rather than headlines, but in this day and age, they should be more aware of the potential for things like this to happen.

I want to finish by saying that this bad luck thing is partly the truth.

Look at lung cancer and smoking. It’s incredibly obvious that lung cancer is primarily caused by smoking. If there was a lottery, and you had to draw tickets, as a smoker you would draw up to 20 times more tickets with the words “lung cancer” on them than somebody who didn’t smoke or have any other environmental or lifestyle factors raising their risk profile.

But paradoxically, many lifetime smokers, heavy smokers, do not get lung cancer. So as you can see, it’s blatantly obvious that there is still an element of luck in getting cancer, or not. But what is clear is that you can be lucky, but the more you influence that luck negatively, the more likely it is to run out.