Whether we are personally affected by it or not, cancer is never an easy topic to broach. It can stir up a lot of anxiety, but we’re making good progress with cancer research and should be feeling optimistic. Cancer Research UK spends around £300 million per year on research dedicated to unravelling causes and developing effective treatments and screening programmes for the different types of cancer, and important advances are being made increasingly often. We should be told about them. It’s more important than ever that the way the media presents cancer research to us should be unbiased, understandable and, above all, scientifically correct, but recent media coverage of breast cancer research shows that there are still some fundamental problems with the way these stories are reported.

It’s more important than ever that the way the media presents cancer research to us should be unbiased, understandable and, above all, scientifically correct.

Sometimes, the science is sloppy, particularly when it comes to genetics. Our genes play a role in the likelihood of developing certain cancers – the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, for example, are strongly linked to breast cancer. However, genetics is a relatively new and complex field, and it can be difficult to understand. A recent report suggested that the drugs currently used to treat breast cancer, Tamoxifen and Raloxifene, could be used to help prevent the cancer from occurring in the first place, which is hopeful news for those with a high genetic risk of developing breast cancer. But the report also stated that ‘having’ the BRCA1 gene greatly increases the risk of breast cancer, which isn’t right. Actually, we all have – and need – the gene. It codes for a protein that plays a role in repairing damaged DNA within our cells, which is important in preventing cancer. A mutation in BRCA1, which changes its normal activity, is what elevates the risk of cancer in some individuals.

In other cases, the statistics we are given about the odds of developing different kinds of cancer are misleading. At their worst, they are used simply to draw interest or even shock readers. In one tabloid interview, Michelle Heaton, a celebrity with a BRCA2 mutation who underwent double mastectomy (breast tissue removal) surgery, said that she has “an 80% chance of developing breast cancer… and that’s on top of everyone else’s one in three chance”. A mastectomy takes great strength to get through, and statistics give the story extra impact. But the misleading implication is that everyone has a one in three chance of developing breast cancer: a very worrying thing for any woman to read. In fact, the lifetime odds of developing breast cancer are just one in eight for women – the ‘one in three’ statistic relates to anyone’s chance of getting any type of cancer, over their whole lifetime.

The statistics we are given about the odds of developing different kinds of cancer are misleading. At their worst, they are used simply to draw interest or even shock readers.

The same ‘one in three’ statistic is used elsewhere for the same effect. In a televised advertising campaign for a charity raising money for cancer research, the one in three odds of developing cancer were compared with the smaller odds of becoming an astronaut and of tripping while texting (1 in 13,200,000 and 1 in 10, in case you were wondering). The idea is to motivate people to give to the charity and raise money for cancer research, which is great. But one in three makes cancer sound scarily likely, especially compared to tripping while texting, which many people (including myself!) have done.

One in three is how often any cancer actually occurs in the whole UK population, and whilst technically true, it doesn’t give us the important details. Cancer occurs more often in older people: over 60% of new cancer cases are diagnosed in those aged over 65. The odds vary widely between different people, and men and women have different odds of developing most cancers. Some cancers are also more preventable by factors that we can control: the majority (86%) of lung cancer cases are due to smoking, so odds are much lower for non-smokers. The detail is useful: screening programmes are targeted at high-risk groups, and one reason for this is that screening makes us think about the possibility of having cancer. Any unnecessary anxiety that results from this is minimised with targeting. ‘One in three’ is high impact, but far too simple a statistic.

The odds vary widely between different people, and men and women have different odds of developing most cancers. Some cancers are also more preventable by factors that we can control.

The news clearly has some room for improvement in the way cancer is handled to avoid inflaming our anxieties: as advances in research stack up, our worries should come down. The Cancer Research website (www.cancerresearchuk.org) is a great source of information, because it explains how accurate cancer statistics and facts have been worked out from real research. But we’re not exposed to it as often as we are the news- reporters should have a responsibility to ensure that their stories, however interesting, aren’t misleading, and allow worriers one less thing to worry about.

Emma Saxon

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Image: Tim Regan via Flickr

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