Laurie is once again traveling for a couple of weeks, so here I am, noting with no astonishment that she and I were completely right about how the media treats two kinds of stories.
Today’s front-page headlines are drowning in “fat increases cancer risk.” This is the result of a “metadata” study in which they say that 7,000 studies were collated and compared. Metadata studies are simultaneously useful and problematic because they compare and contrast studies with different methodologies, different hypotheses, different experimental conditions. (Are there really 7,000 studies to compare? The ABC news article quotes the principal investigator as saying they investigated 500 studies, which seems much more probable.)
My plan was to say that this study sounded interested and promising, and then to comment on how differently it’s being reported from the Women’s Health Initiative Study that Laurie and I talked about last week. I started out feeling neutral, and fair-minded, and open.
Then I started web-surfing, and my neutrality immediately began to slip. The study is the brainchild of an institution called The American Institute for Cancer Research (home page accessible from the previous link), which bills itself as “the nation’s leading charity in the field of diet, physical activity and weight management as it relates to cancer prevention.” You can bet they’re “leading”: they have a $40 million (!) annual budget and they absolutely do not want you to know where their money comes from. (Their financial statements claim that they do it all on contributions of no greater than $800,000, and they name no big donors.) The rest of their self-description sounds like they have an axe to grind here (and, yes, I am grinding the opposing blade).
I lost my temper when I looked at the headline on the study’s press release: “Excess Body Fat Causes Cancer.” This is such an outrageously incorrect conclusion that the newspapers haven’t even picked it up. Note that this conclusion cannot be reached from a metadata study, or even a human behavior study. It could be reached by isolating the biochemical mechanism by which fat initiates wild cell growth–something no one has even come close to doing, as far as I’m aware.
Needless to say, in everything from the ridiculous headline of the press release to the somewhat more balanced press reporting, two things are notably absent, and one is buried. The first is any acknowledgment that diets don’t work for the vast majority of people–even when you call them nutrition management or lifestyle changes. Here’s what ABC has to say:
“The news and conclusions are important because they help confront the view that cancer risk is something we don’t control,” said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. “In my experience, patients tend to recognize that they can control their heart disease risk, but they think of cancer as a bogeyman that pounces from the shadows–that isn’t so.
“Along with avoiding tobacco, weight control and certain dietary adjustments offer powerful means of reducing risk for many, perhaps most cancers.”
The second is any indication that a recent important study had results that contradict these.
Finally, the news reports bury, well past the middle of the articles, the truly important (and proven) point (again quoted from the ABC article):
Experts also emphasize that smoking, not diet, is the primary risk factor that people can address to reduce their cancer risk.
“From a global public health perspective, it is tobacco, not diet that is projected to be the driving force in increased cancer deaths,” said K. Michael Cummings, chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y. “Avoiding tobacco, the green leafy vegetable that is not good for you, will prevent about 30 percent of cancers.”
Even with its tainted origins, ridiculous sponsor reporting, and uneven media reporting, this study obviously has some value. I just want to live in a world where it can be debated on an equal footing with studies that contradict, and where “lose weight to reduce cancer risk” isn’t treated like something as simple as “wear green on Wednesdays” or “don’t mix ammonia and bleach.”