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September 28, 2005

Cancer in the Press

No one knows for sure whether changes in diets have any influence over occurrence or spread of cancer. A few months ago, Gelf compiled an almost comical list of BBC articles about foods that have been thought to either cause or cure the disease. (In a few cases, the same vegetables were, at different times, placed in both categories.) Yesterday, the New York Times was among the first major media outlets to acknowledge the confusion. If anything, though, the rest of the media's willingness to dismiss nuance and prior studies in favor of fawning over the newest cancer-fighting wonderfood has grown.

The well-researched Times article by Gina Kolata looked into the difficulties in researching the relationship between diet and cancer. This quotation, from Barnett Kramer, deputy director in the office of disease prevention at the National Institutes of Health, stands out:

Over time, the messages on diet and cancer have been ratcheted up until they are almost co-equal with the smoking messages. I think a lot of the public is completely unaware that the strength of the message is not matched by the strength of the evidence.

The press is at least partially to blame. Just after the Times story appeared, a whole new round of articles proclaiming the chemotherapeutic properties of phytoestrogens (which are found in tea, coffee, and certain vegetables) was published based on a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The report acknowledges that the study it is based upon lacks certain qualities (like a large sample size and a testable hypothesis) and automatically discards the effects of phystoestrogens found in teas and coffee (because—and we're not making this up—"both have been reported to be protective, to have no effect, and to be a putative risk factor for lung cancer"), but most of the media outlets that picked up the story made no mention of the study's limitations.

Here are a few headlines:

Fruits, vegetables guard against lung cancer-study, Reuters

Broccoli, beans may lower risk of lung cancer, Houston Chronicle

Veggies, fruit may ward off lung cancer, Newsday

Soy-Rich Diet May Reduce Lung Cancer Risk, CNN MedPage

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