Blame Social Media for many cancer myths

Survivors are frequently bombarded with friends kindly offering suggestions about what they should/should not do now that they have cancer.

Image result for TheTimes logoMyths galore fly around;  The Times even said “Social media blamed for spread of cancer myths,”  based on research into what people in the UK believe about the causes of cancer.

This study found common cancer myths include cancer can be caused by stress and/or exposure to electromagnetic frequencies and/ lifestyle.  Friends gleefully spout this ‘information’, then follow it up with  “but my cousin/friend cured theirs by taking such-and-such a supplement”.

Reassuringly, the majority of people surveyed did recognise proven causes of cancer 

  • smoking
  • sunburn
  • drinking too much alcohol.

Cancer has been around for thousands of years, it’s not a modern disease.  Dinosaur bones have been found destroyed by cancer, and Prof. Michael Baum talks of discovering an Egyptian mummy showing evidence of breast cancer.  So don’t think of it as a result of modern life.

People point to a rise in cancer incidences with alarm. My theory – and I don’t mind if you say I am totally bonkers – is that the majority of cancer patients are elderly. Yes, I know there are childhood cancers, but generally patients are older.  Once. 40 was considered ancient, but today life expectancy has increased.  Hence, as cancer mostly targets the elderly, we are showing more cases of cancer as we live longer.


Today, there are many theories as to how, where, why, what and so on causes cancer.  So here is a run-down of the latest information on theories and myths surrounding cancer, many being aired on Social Media :

Mobile Phones and WiFi
Verywell, the US doctor’s website, says “There have been worries about mobile phones causing cancer for (ages). Considering how widespread mobile phone use has been for decades, it would be impossible not to notice if they posed serious health risks. In the US, hardly anyone used a mobile phone in 1992. By 2008, mobile-phone use was widespread, yet the number of people who got a brain tumour barely changed. The World Health Organization’s Interphone study, which studied thousands of people across 13 countries between 2000 and 2006, also found that mobile phones did not increase a person’s chance of getting a brain tumour.

Verywell also commented:  “not all scientific studies are created equal. Reviews or meta-analyses, where scientists look at many research studies together, give the most accurate idea of what is happening. One such review concluded: “Overall, the existing evidence for a causal relationship between RF [radiofrequency] radiation from cell phones and cancer is found to be weak to nonexistent.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists mobile phones as “possible carcinogens”, but this classification means only that there may be a hypothetical link that cannot be ruled out, rather than that there is a real likelihood of something causing cancer.

Organic Farming

Man holding crate full of raw vegetables
 The Soil Association says any claims that organic food has anti-cancer properties are ‘not backed by strong scientific evidence’. 

The Soil Association, the UK’s organic certification body, says: “Any claims around organic and cancer are not backed by strong scientific evidence.”  Photograph: Valentin Russanov/Getty Images

Benefits are real, though, including better animal welfare, more environmentally sustainable farming (there is on average 50% more wildlife on organic farms) and reduced use of antibiotics in animals and pesticides in plants.
Chemicals and pollution
Air pollution in London
 ‘There is a slight risk of lung cancer associated with air pollution.’ Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA

“Chemicals” is a much-misunderstood word – everything, including the air we breathe, is a “chemical”.  EU regulations protect us against exposure to levels of industrial chemicals that would harm our health. There is a slight risk of lung cancer associated with air pollution, but it is important to keep this in context and realise that the risk to each individual is generally small.

Katie Edmunds from Cancer Research UK says: “In the era of fake news, there are plenty of cancer-related myths that people don’t need to worry about, such as using plastic bottles or deodorant. We know that air pollution can increase the risk of lung cancer and it’s important that the government does what it can to tackle this. But, in terms of things people can do themselves, the best advice is to stop smoking, keep a healthy weight and enjoy the sun safely.”

The grain of truth
Woman with sunburn
However, Sunburn IS associated with skin cancer. (Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA)

That said, modern lifestyles do increase our chances of getting cancer. The World Cancer Research Fund’s cancer prevention recommendations, which are based on decades of strong evidence, provide a package of healthy lifestyle choices that, along with not smoking and avoiding excess sun exposure, represent a blueprint for reducing cancer risk.

As Cancer Research UK’s Emma Shields says: “Being overweight or obese is the second-biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK. Every year, around 22,800 cases of cancer are caused by being overweight or obese. Despite this, only 15% of people [are] aware of the link.”

Lack of exercise and consumption of alcohol are other risk factors, but anyone who wants to improve their health through diet should be particularly careful about the qualifications of the people from whom they take advice. Dietitians, who spend years in medical training, are the best people to talk to.

Before Social Media gets you in a tizz

Find out if the myth is evidence based.

  • Has there been an announcement from a major, reputable cancer charity?
  • Or has a hospital announced this – or a well-known group of scientists?
  • Has there been a peer review in the New England Journal of Medicine (well-known US magazine), BMJ (Britih Medical Journal) or Nature?
  • If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is.  Wait and see if the myth is still around in six months, and more than likely it will have been forgotten
  • Have there been any studies that are Evidence based?  Most important.

We are told to limit our salt intake, so although I am not a scientist nor medically-trained, my suggestion is to take social media myth scare stories with the heftiest pinch of salt you can find.