Breast cancer linked to night shifts, electric blankets, french fries, friendly skies

"No generalization is wholly true, not even this one."
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr

Recently the University of Pennsylvania published some research regarding the distortion of cancer success by the mainstream media, how it's far more common for a story to highlight the positives of a cancer story, even if they're minimal. The accompanying headlines are typically misleading.


Take this example, which touts the potential benefits of Zolinza and Velcade in treating people with relapsed or refractory Multiple Myeloma.

Headline: Chemo combo shows potential against multiple myeloma

Shows potential? The overall response rate of the patients in this trial was 83%, I'd call that potential for sure!! This is fantastic news because MM is notoriously difficult to treat, and few viable medical options are currently open to patients.

But read a little deeper, learn what 83% means, start to get depressed:
-- 17 % achieved a "very good partial response" to this combination.
-- 67 % achieved a "minimal response" to it.


What do they mean by "very good partial response"? Your guess is as good as mine. After all, response criteria for non-Hodgkin's lymphomas were standardized in 1999 [1], and 'very good partial response' is not among the terminology.

Now, did I mention that this was a phase I trial with just six patients enrolled? That means:
-- 1 patient 'achieved a very good partial response'
-- 4 patients 'achieved a minimal response'.

Not nearly so impressive anymore. In fact, not only does this data suggest there is very little 'potential', it is also so small as to be statistically and therapeutically insignificant. I would argue that it doesn't even qualify as a news item.


Another example, this one not about cancer, comes from Gary Schwitzer's award-winning medical blog, in which he notes a recent CNN news item and video that discusses extremely important research—namely, a US man has become the first to receive fetal stem cells in the hopes that they will treat his ALS.

Schwitzer notes that the headline, "Stem cell medical breakthrough?" runs throughout the video, when it is nothing close to a breakthrough, at least not yet. Says Schwitzer, "This is important research. It doesn't need hyperbole to sell its merits. It needs evidence. This is a Phase I trial. It's far too early to be calling anything like that a breakthrough - even with a question mark following it."


Perhaps the most egregious example is one that's been ongoing for several years now.

Women could not have missed the dire warning: Take hormone replacement therapy (HRT), your odds of developing breast cancer go way, way up.

But do they really?

In 2002 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) put a virtual kibosh on the popularity of HRT in postmenopausal women when they announced that the plug had been pulled on the massive clinical trial conducted by the Women's Health Initiative (WHI) because of an alarming increased risk of breast cancer among the arm of the study given HRT.

This painted the headlines red.

It proved a financial boon for public health menace Suzanne Somers and her row of quacks. It gave countless women a villain in a black hat on whom to blame their breast cancer, and it forced an untold number of women to cease HRT even though it was improving their quality of life and not many of them would be on it for more than a few years.

Yet a 2009 examination of over 200 peer-reviewed papers by sober-eyed researchers Avrum Z. Bluming and Carol Tavris broadly contradicts the link between HRT and breast cancer [note the chart, which I scanned without permission]. In doing so they point out that the relative risk for breast cancer has been touted in similar headlines to be higher than HRT for black women who made use of electric blankets, in women who worked the night shift, in women who had lots of French fries, and in women who worked as flight attendants in Iceland [2].


And now for the stupidest one, compliments of— who else—those paranoid, conspiratorial-minded, evidence-phobic dorks at Natural News:

Bras Shown to Cause Cancer.

Before you even think it, no-- this isn't some teenage kid's plot to get girls to go braless, it's what passes for medical journalism over there. This particular headline is especially despicable because it doesn't even suggest room for uncertainty. Nope, bras cause cancer, it's been "shown." Considering we can barely "show" how it is, at the molecular level, that cigarettes cause cancer, it's amazing that Natural News can "show" us how bras cause cancer.


My point is not to determine the relative risk of HRT and breast cancer, but to point out that headlines related to medicine and science have nothing to do with medicine and they have no scientific worth. It's an art form that takes great liberties with the truth.

"In an era when alarmist headlines get everyone’s attention, it is all the more important to read the fine print," write Bluming and Tavris. "Sometimes there is even good news there."

By Ross Bonander

[1] Cheson BD et al. "Report of an International Workshop to Standardize Response Criteria for Non-Hodgkin's Lymphomas." J Clin Oncol. 1999 Apr;17(4):1244

[2] Bluming AZ, Tavris C. "Hormone Replacement Therapy: Real Concerns and False Alarms." Cancer J. 2009 May-Jun;15(3):262.

Note: I first read about the HRT study in the May/June issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which features an abridged version of the paper along with the URL where you can download the original paper for free:

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