Copied (with permission) from the 'tenovus' forum.I thought you'd like it!

Whilst out for dinner with my parents recently, my mother leaned over the table and slipped me an article that she had cut out of that week’s Sunday paper. The headline read, “Contraceptive coil increases risk of ovarian cancer by 76%”. She then revealed to me that she had used the coil for contraception through the 1980’s (as she had obviously already achieved perfection with her two existing sons) and was concerned that this action had massively increased her risk of cancer. Once I got over the initial horror of discussing my mother’s use of contraception, I went away and looked at the numbers more closely for her.

Ovarian cancer affects around 7000 women each year in the UK and accounts for over 4000 deaths. The lifetime risk of ovarian cancer if you are a woman is about 0.023%, therefore if using the coil increases this risk by 76% then the headline should have read, “Contraceptive coil increases risk of ovarian cancer by 0.017%”, a somewhat less eye-catching headline maybe, but certainly a far less worrying statistic for my mother.

Each week we are bombarded by stories in the media regarding causes and cures for cancer. Probably the most prevalent of these stories regard “super foods”, the foodstuffs lauded to possess Grail like qualities in their prevention of disease. Whilst there are certainly benefits to a healthy varied diet, and some chemicals found in fruit and vegetables may have some protective benefit, these benefits are often greatly exaggerated. Likewise with the foods that are said to increase your risk of cancer. For example several front pages in the UK this year carried the headline “Eating just one sausage a day increases risk of cancer by 20%”. Whilst there certainly appears to be a link between excessive red meat consumption and bowel cancer, the pervading reaction to this article was one of ridicule rather than concern. This reaction is completely understandable; if you search the British popular press for foods that “prevent” cancer and those that “cause” cancer it is remarkable how many make both lists.

It of course not just foods that are named and shamed in the press but also everyday object ranging from non-stick frying pans to electric blankets to microwaves. Whilst some of these headlines belie some quite interesting science, the way in which they are portrayed often ranges from the misleading to the outlandish. This is probably best exemplified by the Daily Mail headline “Dogs give women breast cancer”, a headline which must have caused blind panic across vast swathes of the pet loving UK. The story states that, “breast cancer patients…were significantly more likely to have kept a dog than a cat. In fact, 79% of all patients had intensive contact with dogs before they were diagnosed.” However, when you look at the paper this story was taken from it was a study of just 69 patients in one hospital, and the 79% of the patients that had experienced contact with a dog had done so at some point over a 30 year period.

Whilst this is an extreme example, I believe the barrage of these types of frivolous stories around cancer risk are causing the public a great deal of “health message fatigue”, and that this in turn is causing serious problems in the uptake of the health messages that could actually go some way to preventing up to half of all cancer cases. For example, after reading that their dog may be giving them cancer, how many women had a cigarette to steady their nerves?

Dr Ian Lewis- Research Manager, Tenovus

9 Replies

oldestnewest
  • Dear Isadora,

    Thanks for that! I always knew I was right to ignore the stats in newspaper headlines. Stats are a measure of probability only not a predictor of events! If only 47% of us get to 5 years from diagnosis I sure as hell am fighting to be in that 47% and I never read horror stories with those kinds of headlines!

    I presume your mum decided 2perfect boys were not enough and had you! I thank the powers that be for my wonderful supportive daughter!

    Margaret

  • You've overlooked that the post was made by Dr Ian Lewis and copied by me, Margaret, but yes let's be in the 47%!

    I xx

  • Oh I realised where the post came from! The comments were my response to it. I suppose I was agreeing with it but it was not clear that the whole thing was his! My apologies!

    I did think it odd! LOL! Chemo brain strikes again!

    Margaret

  • Thanks for this Isadora. I quite agree with the 'health message fatigue' . We are so bambarded with information, it can just be so confusing. Bless you for sharing this with us.

    Eleni x

  • Very interesting stuff Isadora. Just another example of how elements of the press are doing us all a disservice! After being diagnosed with OC I made the mistake of looking to the internet for information - boy did I regret that.

    Kind Regards,

    Joelle

  • I love the internet; but the problem is, unless you know the subject in which you are interested, you cannot tell what is 'good' information, and what is not.

    I am 3 years down the line, and now feel so much more able to sift the wheat from the chaff- so now it's a positive asset!

    When you are first diagnosed you are caught in the headlights of your own fear anyway, and tend just to see the terrifying and negative.

    I.

  • Absolutely! I also think that the information available has improved - I only found out about Ovacome a while after diagnosis and 5 years ago I don't think this forum existed but I may be wrong.

    All the best,

    Joelle

  • Great, Isadora!

    I have long suspected that all these horror stories are more to do with newspaper sales than a concern for our health! I have a healthy disregard for most statistics, beyond the sensible, proven ones that we should all take account of ie: try not to smoke, try not to get too stressed, get help when you need it, eat and drink anything that makes you feel happy, but sensibly, and find someone you can have a smile with each day, even if it's with a stranger! (probably get me sectioned one of these days, but hey!)

    We should never be made to feel that we are at fault for developing our illnesses -- I never forget the woman who told me "Oh well, it's because you never had children ..... " A cause of sadness to me, but NOT my fault! Oh hell, stress!!!!!!! Not a good idea ;-)

  • "I never forget the woman who told me "Oh well, it's because you never had children ..... " "

    What a silly person, Wendy - there aren't any mothers on here, after all!!

    I xxx

You may also like...