Scientists keep changing their minds….

carrot-web“Scientists keep changing their minds, it’s better to ignore their advice.” That is the gist of a new survey published this week.  The survey was commissioned by the World Cancer Research Fund, a charity that promotes a healthy diet and lifestyle as a way to avoid some types of cancer.

The BBC have a short (2 minute) video on their website called  “Britons Wary Over Cancer Advice

If you can’t see the video above, then you can read the text here. Or go to the WCRF website and read the report “straight from the horses mouth” in a press release from the 25th of May 2015.

So more than a quarter (27%) of Britons think it’s better to ignore health advice because its always changing. Is that a fair comment? Do I think the advice is always changing? No, not really the current advice to eat lots of fruit and veg and exercise hasn’t changed in the past 10 years.  We now know that processed meat isn’t great, so the advice to limit how much burgers/sausages/pies etc you eat seems reasonable.

But, I know someone who ate all the right foods and still got cancer…

This argument comes up a lot. Many people believe that cancer is bad luck, so there is no point in eating healthily or exercising. I believe that some car accidents are caused by bad luck, but I still put a seat belt on when I’m in a car. A person who eats a healthy diet can develop cancer, a careful driver can be injured in a road accident.  That doesn’t mean most people should give up on a  healthy diet or that we should stop wearing seatbelts.  There is a good blog on Cancer Research UK’s Science Update Blog that explains this argument more fully it’s called “Nanny-stateism, pesticides and Kylie – public reaction to the WCRF report

Why is there such confusion?  Some news stories don’t help, I read a lot of news stories blogs and scientific research on cancer.  Practically every week there are three types of story…

Type 1  Eat more pomegranates/oranges/kiwis/any other exotic fruit. It is a “super food”. It will stop (or cure) cancer.

I mostly ignore these stories. If any one fruit or veg was going to prevent all cancer in all people we’d all be eating it by now.  Nature is much more complicated than that. So I’m very skeptical of reports that imply just one type of food is going to “save” me.

Type 2  Something you eat or use every day is killing you (e.g. power lines/chips/deodorant/plastic bottles)

Again, I mostly ignore these stories too. Large scale epidemiological studies are difficult and expensive to do.  Looking at an effect in 20-100 people does not give you a definite answer.

However, we shouldn’t be blind to history such as  the women in 1920′s America, who developed cancer because of their job painting fluorescent watch dials with radium which exposed them to massive quantities of radiation.

Type 3  Scientists discover a new cancer gene/drug/treatment that will save us all.

I’m not knocking science, I think the only way to find cures is to study the DNA, proteins and RNA that make up cells and then to work out who this exceedingly complicated muddle of things works together in a human. However, a gene discovery in a lab is usually 10-20 years away from a clinical trial, even clinical trials take 10 years to do.  So breakthroughs made in laboratories today might not reach the NHS for another 30 years (assuming the NHS is still around in thirty years time, but that’s another story…)

These long time scales are not crazy, scientists aren’t deliberately slow or trying to make money out of sick people, designing drugs is difficult, most of the time the drugs don’t work and if you get it wrong you kill people. We need to make sure the drugs and treatments we develop help and sadly, this means “breakthroughs” don’t bring instantaneous help to those people who have cancer now. It’s a bit like car designers, they all have prototype cars that run on hydrogen but it’s going to be a long time before we all have an “eco-car” parked on our drive.

So should we eat a healthy diet and exercise. Yes. Should you stop smoking. Yes.  Will it stop everyone from developing cancer. No, but the research shows it could help prevent at least 50% of cancers and that has got to be a good thing. (I’d also wear a seat belt too, but that’s got nothing to do with cancer!)

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