Does ‘bad luck’ cancer study undermine prevention message?

    Listen
    (Shutterstock Image)

    (Shutterstock Image)

    For Americans who have quit smoking, sought out omega–3 rich foods, or chugged gallons of açai berry juice to stave off cancer, a medical breakthrough last week may come as a disappointing shock—many people develop the life-threatening disease purely because of bad luck.

    The journal Science reported that research from Johns Hopkins University had concluded that as much as two-thirds of cancer diagnoses stemmed from entirely random genetic mutations. That’s as opposed to causal environmental factors traditionally associated with cancer like smoking, poor diet or radiation exposure.

    Some may read the findings and rejoice—maybe smoking isn’t that bad for you after all!—others may despair—if cancer is mostly a matter of chance, you may already be doomed.

    But Donald Schwarz, MD, a former Philadelphia Health Commissioner and now a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, says media coverage is distorting the core findings of the study for the general public.

    “I read an article about this first in the New York Times that suggested this is going to revolutionize in some way how we think about prevention of cancer,” recalled Schwarz. “Having read the article I have to say not much really changes. For the average American, nothing really changes.”

    Schwarz says medical professionals have known for years that most cancer occurs because, somewhere along the line, cell division goes haywire, causing the uncontrolled and potentially fatal cell growths known as tumors. Just because that happens randomly in most cases doesn’t mean that the other cases are less important or less fatal—smoking is still unhealthy and does cause lung cancer, ditto sun exposure for skin cancer, or poor diet and bowel cancers.

    Schwarz says the “cancer’s just all bad luck” line is mostly a function of the media fishing a good headline out of a complex medical report.

    “There’s a sad point that even in scientific journals there’s a piece of marketing. It’s in the journals benefit to get people to read articles,” he said. “This is not a bad article, in fact it’s an important article in pointing out that we need to be vigilant in terms of screening because for a number of types of cancer we likely are never going to have good prevention.”

    For all the other kinds of cancers, Schwarz the research reenforces that it is important to encourage people to knock off unhealthy activities to prevent many cancers.

    But what about the person who’s already doing everything right? Doesn’t this research still indicate that they might just be fated to die from cancer no matter what they do? He recommended looking at the study a different way.

    “For a very long time, people that have gotten cancer have wondered if they’ve done something wrong. If for their particular kind of cancer…if they’ve eaten something wrong, or they’ve lived somehow wrong, or if their children have to worry,” said Schwarz. “What this article says is that for that particular kind of cancer, the environmental and genetic risks are small, it just happens to happen.”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.