How many times have you been told that X, Y, or Z causes cancer? Because of cancer’s impact, researchers are always studying, always searching, always theorizing. We’re learning more, but before the final answers are in, there’s a risk of theories being taken as facts. Small studies, educated guesses, correlations… these things are not the same as facts, but are sometimes treated as such, and so a health-myth is born.
A while ago we did a post titled, “6 Things You’ve Been Told Cause Cancer, But Are Actually Safe!” and presented some of the work from Dr. Kristi Funk, breast cancer surgeon to Angelina Jolie and Sheryl Crow. In her book, Breasts: The Owner’s Manual, she talks about six things that people have been duped into thinking cause cancer like wearing bras and using cell phones. She debunks these myths and thankfully reassures everyone that they don’t have to give up wearing deodorant to stay healthy.
But two other doctors, both of whom have had breast cancer, say that Dr. Funk is replacing these myths with some less-than-reputable information about why people get cancer and how it can be avoided. Dr. Liz O’Riordan and Professor Trisha Greenhalgh, who have also written a book on breast cancer, say that Dr. Funk’s claim that breast cancer risk can be reduced by 50 to 80 percent through lifestyle changes is unfounded. They applaud Dr. Funk for dispelling myths, but feel she goes much, much too far when she claims that most breast cancers could be avoided.
O’Riordan and Greenhalgh write, “Using the most recent meta-analyses available, we have found that the proportion of pre-menopausal breast cancers that are attributable to being overweight or obese is zero; for post-menopausal breast cancers the figure is around 5 percent.”
Compare that to Dr. Funk’s statement, “And I’m just going to be blunt here: if you’re too chubby, your extra pounds can kill you. When an obese cancer patient looks at me and asks: ‘How did this happen?’ I’d never blame or shame her, but shame on me if I pass by a critical opportunity to help this woman make healthy changes that might save her life.” Dr. Funk says that emphasizing exercise, not smoking, not drinking, and eating less dairy can reduce a woman’s chance of getting breast cancer by half or even 80 percent, if the woman is post-menopausal.
O’Riordan and Greenhalgh also say that the most up-to-date research fails to bear out Dr. Funk’s claim that avoiding milk and dairy prevents breast cancer. “This recommendation has no basis,” they say, and go on to cite studies that say consuming dairy products can actually help reduce breast cancer risk.
They go on to say that red meat increases breast cancer risk a “very small” amount and that the biggest risks for breast cancer are simply being a woman and getting older—both of which are rather hard to avoid. And all modifiable lifestyle factors combined, things like diet, alcohol intake, smoking, and exercise, account for less than 35 percent of breast cancer cases.
Wait… so lifestyle factors do matter, or they don’t?
O’Riordan and Greenhalgh don’t disagree about lifestyle factors contributing to cancer risk, but they feel Dr. Funk takes the idea much too far—far enough to scare people but not to help them. “And yes, it’s true that some breast cancers are avoidable… But from our work, we know the latest evidence simply does not support the claim that most breast cancers would be prevented if we all improved our lifestyles,” they write, and go on to explain that some of the meta-analyses that Dr. Funk has used to make her sweeping claims don’t incorporate the most recent research.
What’s the takeaway? One, that lifestyle matters. It’s important to take care of yourself both for your health and quality of life. Maintaining a healthy weight will help you avoid heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. But two, there are tons of factors that affect cancer risk, some are unavoidable, and some are completely random.
Basically, blaming someone for their cancer, even yourself, is not only hurtful, but unfounded. In the end, we should take care of ourselves so that we can enjoy our lives, not so that we eliminate every possible risk of cancer, because that just can’t be done at this point in time. Life is hard, cancer makes it harder, and the last thing we need is an undeserved guilt trip.
Stay happy, friends.
Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.