The news that most cancers are due to bad luck, not lifestyle factors, genetics or the environment, is on the front page of several newspapers today. Here's a snippet from the Beeb:
Most types of cancer can be put down to bad luck rather than risk factors such as smoking, a study has suggested.
A US team were trying to explain why some tissues were millions of times more vulnerable to cancer than others.
The results, in the journal Science, showed two thirds of the cancer types analysed were caused just by chance mutations rather than lifestyle.
In some respects, it is surprising that this study has made such a big splash. It does not claim that all cancers are due to bad luck. On the contrary, it attributes a substantial minority to lifestyle factors such as smoking. Did people really think that most or all cancers are due to bad habits? Perhaps they did, but if the findings seem counterintuitive it is because of the lingering, primitive belief that ill health is the result of sinfulness and that those who develop cancer somehow deserve it—a belief that is eagerly fostered by the neo-puritans of 'public health'.
I got a sense of déja vu when I read this story as it seemed remarkably similar to a story that came out only last week.
Life choices 'behind more than four in 10 cancers'More than four in 10 cancers - 600,000 in the UK alone - could be prevented if people led healthier lives, say experts.
Latest figures from Cancer Research UK show smoking is the biggest avoidable risk factor, followed by unhealthy diets.
This is really just another way of imparting the same information. 'Large minority of cancers caused by lifestyle factors' is no different to 'Most cancers not caused by lifestyle factors' except in its emphasis, as I said at the time.
@danmacdonald73 "Most cancers are due to bad luck, doctors admit. Eat, drink and be merry."
— Christopher Snowdon (@cjsnowdon) December 26, 2014
But the change in emphasis is very significant. The Boxing Day story was inspired on a Cancer Research UK press release whereas today's report is based on a study published in Science. Moreover, the CR-UK press release gives a much higher estimate of how many cancers are lifestyle related. It attributes more than 40 per cent to lifestyle factors (smoking, diet and drinking, mostly) whereas the new study finds that only a third of cancers are due to lifestyle factors, environmental factors and hereditary factors combined.
And whereas the Science study is a serious piece of research written by two oncologists and published in a peer-reviewed journal, the CR-UK press release was based on a back on the envelope estimate by CR-UK statisticians and appeared to have been designed primarily to give CR-UK an excuse to promote 'standardised' packaging and assure the public that 'we do not want to ban mince pies'.
It may be a coincidence, of course, but it makes you wonder whether CR-UK decided to put their figures out last week, with a heavy emphasis on things that can be banned, because they knew that the more circumspect Science study was coming out seven days later.