When the Medical News Is Not about Weight

Debbie says:

Cancer risk news is everywhere (because cancer is so common, and so scary). Most early articles linking increased cancer risk to anything will turn out not to be true, or to be overstated, or hugely influenced by other factors. So, I wasn’t as interested in this article because of what it says as because of how it says it. The article, from that used-to-be-a-major-news-source magazine known as Time, is about links between cancer risk and height: “New research published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention found a surprising correlation between height and cancer risk among postmenopausal women; the taller the woman, the greater her risk for the disease.”

It seems to be a good enough study; it’s based on the Women’s Health Initiative data, so it’s a large pool and (as far as I can tell from a superficial article) the methodology was reasonable enough. If the article was about weight (which is constantly linked to cancer), it would end with what our own Lynne Murray calls “the faith sentence,” the capper to an article that reinforces what the writer and/or the researchers believe. In the cancer/weight articles, it is usually “proper attention to diet, weight and lifestyle management would save so many lives,” or words to that effect. In weight articles, the faith sentence is a club, used to remind you that your cancer (or whatever) is your fault and you just aren’t managing yourself properly. Here’s the American Cancer Society’s version:

While we still have much to learn about the link between weight loss and cancer risk, people who are overweight or obese should be encouraged and supported if they try to lose weight. Aside from possibly reducing cancer risk, losing weight can have many other health benefits, such as lowering the risk of other chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. Losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start.

In the Time article, we see a very different faith sentence.

[Dr. Thomas] Rohan, [chair and professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine] and his colleagues say the study doesn’t imply that cancer is inevitable for every tall woman. The study found an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. And it’s unlikely that diseases as complex as cancer can be traced to just one developmental process such as growth.

In other words, ladies, your height is not your fault, so we need an ending sentence that tells you not to worry too much, and not to assume you are doomed. If the same sentence was used as the closure for an article about the risks of fat in any area of health, it would say:

[Experts] say the study doesn’t imply that [this disease] is inevitable for every fat woman. The study found an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. And it’s unlikely that diseases as complex as [this one] can be traced to just one developmental process such as body size. While losing weight has known health benefits, it also has associated health risks, and has been regularly demonstrated not to be reliably possible, even in very carefully controlled conditions.

The great thing about this faith sentence is that it’s true.

2 thoughts on “When the Medical News Is Not about Weight

  1. i’m so glad you posted this. I’d like to add something I think is along the same lines if you don’t mind.

    Canadian expatriates Simon and Martina do a video blog that is mostly about Korean pop music, but around once a week they video blog about their experiences of everyday life in Korea. In this video, Simon talks about what it’s like to be unusually tall in his adopted country.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bzI8q-V4oY

    Simon describes some of the same sorts of experiences that fat people have in many places (particularly outside North America), like not being able to buy clothes, not fitting well into some public spaces, and so forth. But there is a slant that would probably appear in a video where a fat person talked about these things that never turns up here: Simon never defends being tall, nor apologises for being tall, nor gives reasons for what might have made him tall, nor mentions that he could really stand to lose some height. I should go read the comments; I doubt that anyone has called him names, told him that he has no self-control, or given him height-control tips. His height is just part of physical reality and he talks about what is easier and what more difficult because of it.

    Watching this, I get to imagine how an unstigmatised fat person might talk and how an audience without fat stigma might respond. Kind of a fun thought experiment.

  2. Jill,

    I really liked your take that..”Watching this, I get to imagine how an unstigmatised fat person might talk and how an audience without fat stigma might respond. Kind of a fun thought experiment.”. It’s not a context we get to relate to a lot. Although I am uncomfortable about some of the ways he talks about Koreans.

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