Study Says You Can’t Prevent Cancer, It’s Just Random Bad Luck
February 1st, 2015 by Holly Cornish
Doomsayers are buzzing about a “groundbreaking” paper published in Science last month. It claims that two-thirds of cancer cases are due to bad luck. The unfortunate victims couldn’t have prevented the problem by doing anything different.
The study got a lot of play in the media. I was in London when the story broke, and people were even talking about it there. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. But when I learned the details of the research, I found out it’s just about the silliest cancer “theory” to hit the media in 30 years.
Today, I want to shed light on why this new study is way off-base, why you should ignore most of its claims – and the one tiny way it might have some value. . .
A Message from Lee Euler
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The research I’m referring to contends that the rate at which stems cells divide is the root of all unexplainable cancers.
So let’s talk about stem cells. The job of stem cells is to make more cells. Stem cells have been likened to factories, because their mission is to refresh our cells by creating new batches of those same cells.
Without stem cells, there’d be no way for our tissues to regenerate, no way to replace cells as they die off. We’d all fade out at an early age without the replicative power of stem cells. Stem cells are the body’s way of renewing itself.
Unfortunately, cancer cells capitalize on this replicative process. According to the standard theory (which itself is flawed, see Issue #415 and #416), cancer starts when cells undergo DNA mutations as they divide. The more advanced research has convinced me it’s mitochondrial damage that causes cancer, not DNA damage. But no matter where the damage takes place, these cancer-causing mutations are fairly harmless when they affect regular cells.
It’s when stem cells become cancerous that cancer spreads and becomes deadly. This is what makes more cancer cells, and enables them to survive chemo and spread from the original cancer site to the rest of the body.
Christian Tomasetti and Bert Vogelstein, the researchers behind the Science article who hail from Johns Hopkins University, found that the number of stem cells in a specific tissue can dramatically affect the likelihood of developing cancer in that tissue. So in tissues with a high concentration of stem cells, it’s more likely one of those cell divisions will accidentally mutate and lead to cancer.
The researchers essentially found a mathematical correlation between the rate of stem cell division in a tissue and the rate of cancer in that tissue. But they went on to say their calculations could explain two-thirds of cancer cases. And this is where they went wrong.
Here’s where the media reach
has a terrible effect
The upside is that this research may help explain some of the cancers that don’t make sense – like lung cancer in people who have never smoked.
The downside is that the study’s authors don’t address the obvious question: Why do stem cells mutate and turn cancerous? The study merely demonstrates that the more stem cells are present, the more likely it is that some will become cancerous. The study assumes that damage to stem cells is natural and purely random. The mutations are caused by, well, “nothing.”
If you accept that cancer in stem cells is the most dangerous type of cancer in the first place, it’s not surprising to learn that the most dangerous cancers originate in tissue with the highest number of healthy stem cells.
But that’s not to say the mutations have no cause. If you shoot a rifle into a crowd, you’re more likely to kill someone than if you fire into an empty field. The deaths – i.e. stem cell mutations – are naturally going to occur in tissues where there are a lot of stem cells (I’m tempted to say “Duh!”) But this does NOT mean there’s no one firing the rifle.
In fact, it seems to me these two scientists spectacularly misinterpret their own data. Their study explains why an organ with a very high proportion of stem cells is more prone to cancer than an organ with a low percentage of stem cells. They don’t identify the causes of cancer at all, they identify the reasons some organs – those with the most stem cells — are more likely to get cancer than others.
It gets worse. . .
There are other errors in the research. Tomasetti and Vogelstein only looked at cancer types with preexisting data about stem cell division rates. And they didn’t analyze breast and prostate cancer, two of the most common cancers.
This tells us their results do not necessarily apply to all cancers.
This also means that under no circumstances should the study be interpreted to explain two-thirds of all cancer risk. Yet that’s exactly what dozens of media outlets did.
By ignoring the possible (indeed, probable) causes of stem cell damage, the authors ignore other ways that cancer patients may have become vulnerable to cancer (like, say, the thousands of toxic elements we breathe every day thanks in our polluted modern world).
Instead, the authors postulate that anyone with an unexplainable cancer simply had bad luck. Their slant is that it’s all about the luck. They skim over the concept of differences in risks among different individuals and say stem cell division rates can explain two-thirds of cases.
Worse, the study authors go so far as to say that changing your lifestyle or trying other interventions to stop cancer from occurring won’t help. They say we probably can’t prevent tumors from forming, but at least there’s chemotherapy and radiation to keep them under control. Naturally, they’re fans of screening so you can pick up the first sign of trouble. But actual prevention strategies? Not interested, because it mostly comes down to bad luck.
We could all brush it off, but this kind of statement causes a ripple effect of problems. For starters, right after the study in Science was published, the media outlets spread the “bad luck” message far and wide.
This message directly contradicts what the evidence proves for sure – which is that you can change your odds when it comes to cancer if you adopt a healthy lifestyle. Obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking are perhaps the most obvious examples. All three are known to greatly increase cancer risk.
It’s a single piece of a massive
puzzle. That’s all.
The truth of the matter is this: No, we can’t explain exactly what causes every single case of cancer.
But we know what leads up to it. We have a lot of pieces of the puzzle. Knowing that stem cell division rates are part of the puzzle will only help. But NOT if you chalk it all up to bad luck.
What we know for sure is that a host of lifestyle decisions affect your chances of the cellular damage – whether to mitochondria or DNA – that leads to cancer. Chemicals from toxins in the environment or even tobacco smoke can modify these cell structures. So can fluctuating hormone levels and chronic inflammation. But the story doesn’t end there. A lot of other factors go into the development of cancer, such as a well-tended immune system, emotional calm, and basic exercise habits.
You’re still the one in the driver’s seat
Don’t misunderstand me. The finding that stem cell numbers within a particular cell can affect the development of cancer is an important one. For example, it helps explain why cancer occurs more often in a place like the bowels than it does in the brain (because there are far more stem cells in the bowels).
But don’t start thinking the stem cell composition of your tissues has just booted you from the driver’s seat. To tell people they don’t need to claim responsibility for their health is about like telling them not to bother wearing a seatbelt. It’s the same as saying if you get in an accident, it was just bad luck.
Well, yes, the accident may have been random bad luck – but wearing the seatbelt is a choice.
The real danger with this kind of “research” is that many people will seize on it as a free pass to play fast and loose with their health. “It’s out of my control,” they’ll say. “So why not smoke? Why not drink too much? Why not stuff myself with desserts and sodas? It won’t change my odds.”
The researchers should have focused their message on how stem cell composition may increase your risk. And that makes it all the more important that you do your part by increasing your commitment to staying healthy. Cancer is caused by a myriad of factors, some we can control, and others we can’t. But as far as I’m concerned, I want to tilt the table in my favor by doing whatever I can about the ones I’m able to control.
And if you’ve already got cancer, well, there’s definitely something you can do about that.
Lee Euler, Publisher