How much will you pay to hear what you want to hear?

Everybody wants to believe they can control whether they get breast cancer or not.   Of course we want control over this disease.  It’s pretty scary  to think it can happen to anyone.

It follows doesn’t it, that we will support the organizations that tell us what we want to hear.  The ones who give us control.

Yesterday, I reported on a large, well-designed study that followed over 300,000 women for eleven years and found no concrete link between a meat or dairy free diet and breast cancer risk.  But alas, the NY Times, and several other news outlets report this week that almost half of all breast cancers can be prevented – simply by a healthy lifestyle including a vegetarian diet.  Huh?  If it can make that much difference, how could that large, prospective study I reported on yesterday have missed it?

I did a little digging.  The news articles are basically reprinted press releases from the American Institute of Cancer Research.  Who are they?  Well, it turns out they are a “charity” that funds and “interprets” science on cancer prevention.  Here’s the rub – over half of the organization’s public education efforts  are tied to fundraising appeals.   And those donations?  CharityNavigator gave them a poor rating for putting those funds back into research.  According to the Better Business Bureau the CEO earns over $400,000.

Ok, what about the science?  Where did they come up with the claim that 70,000 cases of breast cancer can be prevented each year?  I read through several pages of the report and could find no valid scientific explanation for how they arrived at that number.  It appears to be a huge leap or “interpretation” made by their panel of experts.  As far as diet and breast cancer prevention, within their own report they list the evidence as “limited” and not convincing or probable. And even more interesting, they report convincing evidence that body fat is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women but a DECREASED risk in premenopausal women.  They couldn’t very well include that in their press release could they?  Get fat!  It will help you prevent breast cancer!

So the AICR got a lot of coverage for their bold, unsubstantiated claims and scientific “interpretations” which I’m sure they are using in their telemarketing campaigns as we speak.  I guess they are counting on very few people actually looking for the evidence in their report.

Read it for yourself.  NYTimes article:

AICR Report: Oh, and they will make you register to read the report.

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  • Ann Fonfa  On September 4, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    The main reason I doubt studies about what we eat, is that SO FEW people actually eat lots of the fruits and vegetables and little of the sugar, fried foods and junk that is bad for us.

    So what group of people make up the various comparison groups? Does anyone in them eat 5-9 fruits/vegetables a day? Whenever I have inquired of the authors in the past, they confirm that they usuall compare a group that eats 1-2 a day (at best) with those who eat 1-3 a week, or sometimes less. That cannot ‘prove’ anything about eating real fruits and vegetables.

    It is well known that the #1 vegetable in the US is french fries (no nutrients left after deep frying). #2 is ketchup (some value from tomatoes), and #3 iceberg lettuce (short on nutrients).
    Ann F.

    • breastcanceradvocate  On September 4, 2009 at 5:24 pm

      Ann, you make a great point. So much dietary research is based on surveys or recall of diet. That’s why I love Dr. Dean Ornish’s studies. He’s looked at heart disease and prostate cancer and he actually did an intervention, a really intense lifestyle change with some people, and then compared it to the control group. He has found that in those diseases, the course of disease can be altered with lifestyle changes. We gotta get him working on breast cancer.

  • Joy Simha  On September 5, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Thank you Laura, this is a great case study about how bad science (and good P.R efforts) influence us on a daily basis. I am always amazed by how folks value those who tell them what they want to hear instead of those who tell them the truth. Thank you for highlighting this issue.


  • suzanne  On September 5, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    oh, laura, i’m so happy for you! you’ve been moving towards this blog for a while……and it seems a perfect fit. i look forward to learning from you and sharing with you. go girl!


  • Alice Bender  On September 8, 2009 at 6:07 pm

    The 2007 AICR expert report and recent update for breast cancer are based on a rigorous and transparent systematic literature review, using hundreds of studies looking at diet and cancer prevention.
    To estimate how many cases of breast cancer are potentially preventable by following AICR’s recommendations, we combined data from the expert report with information from national surveys on levels of foods, nutrients, obesity and physical activity in a given country. We believe these estimates are as good as it is possible to achieve, given the available data.
    The recommendations on lowering risk for breast cancer include maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol if women drink, being active for at least 30 minutes every day, and breastfeeding. There is no mention of a vegetarian diet.
    Although our matrix shows that body fatness probably (not convincingly) lowers risk for pre-menopausal breast cancer, AICR will not recommend increasing weight because of other health risks for high body fat (hypertension, diabetes e.g.) and the difficulty of losing weight.
    Because cancer is not just one disease, but involves many factors, not all breast cancers will be prevented solely by diet, weight and exercise, but the good news is that some people will be able to lower their cancer risk by following a healthy lifestyle.
    Alice Bender, MS, RD
    American Institute for Cancer Research

  • Joy Simha  On September 9, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Dear Alice,

    The educated advocate knows that evidence based recommendations are made with Systematic Reviews. That is comparing all the research done on a specific topic and showing what the majority of well done research proves. These types of reviews are done well by the Cochrane Collaboration and AHRQ. There are no short cuts allowed. You also need to discuss results found in terms of absolute risk as opposed to relative risk. I have to tell you, that I am an expert at saying good bye to wonderful women who have died of breast cancer and most of them lived a good clean healthy life with lots of exercise. In order to truly find a way to prevent and cure breast cancer we need to only put forth evidence based recommendations based upon the highest quality of research.

  • Ann Fonfa  On September 9, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Hi Joy,

    That is a great goal but sadly not much of Level 1 evidence will ever be done on natural approaches. And there would have to be a large number of such studies duplicated to do a meta-analysis leading to a systematic review.

    I also have to point out that the majority of Americans, therefore the majority of people getting and dying of cancer, are NOT healthy eaters, nor do they exercise or take care of their environment. You (and () just happen to know the subset of people who tried hard to live a good and healthy lifestyle but sadly, died of cancer anyway.

    • breastcanceradvocate  On September 9, 2009 at 6:09 pm

      There just isn’t the “smoking” gun for breast cancer like there is, for say, lung cancer. We just don’t know what causes breast cancer, and therefore how to prevent it. That’s not to say a healthy lifestyle won’t do us good and help our bodies fight the disease or heal from treatment. But I resent organizations taking advantage of people’s fears of cancer and misrepresenting the reality for those of us who do have cancer. AICR is not only misrepresenting the scientific truth to raise money, but they are also falsely leading people to believe that their money is going towards worthwhile cancer research. Reissuing lengthy reports with the same false claims every few years does not get us any closer to a cure.

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