Cancer Countdown

Posted: August 9, 2010 in Bad Data
Tags: , , , ,

For spinning data, ‘Lifestyle’ articles are the worst. I was sorry to see such an article in The Guardian today (09/08/10). The headline: “British breast cancer rates ‘four times higher than eastern Africa’, says report”. The subheading: “World Cancer Research Fund survey cites lifestyle as reason for difference”. This article is taken straight from a press release.

Most people who read this headline will think “the way we live must be killing us, and at an alarming rate seeing as it’s worse than in Africa!”. This nugget of data was extracted from a larger body of detailed work by media folk that like hyperbole. It means nothing.

The first line of the third paragraph reads: “Part of the difference is likely to be because the UK is better at diagnosing and recording breat cancer cases”. The whole basis of the article is ‘difference'; the shocking comparison between developed Britain and under-developed eastern Africa. However, the true difference cannot be measured.

Who knows how many cases of breast cancer go undiagnosed in eastern Africa? Add that to the amount of women genetically predisposed to breast cancer who die of malaria, AIDS, cholera and dysentry before they develop cancer. Because of the NHS and breast screening in the UK there is bound to be a huge difference between breast cancer rates in the UK and developing nations. It’s the difference in the detection rate that is responsible for stark statistics.

As developed countries erradicate most infectious diseases through vaccinations, improved heath care and sanitation, genetic and lifestyle-related diseases squeeze through the economic cracks. You have to die of something.

What I find most shocking is the article draws the conclusion that:

“The fact that rates of breast cancer are much lower in other parts of the world highlights the fact that breast cancer is not inevitable. This means we need to do more to get across the message that just by making relatively simple changes to our lifestyle such as drinking less alcohol and maintaining a healthy weight, women can reduce their risk of breast cancer.”

This piece of research on country comparison of breast cancer rates can make no solid statements on lifestyle seeing as there are too many variables differentiating ‘lifestyle’ across the world. I am shocked that the above quote came from Dr Rachel Thompson, deputy head of science for the World Cancer Research Fund.

The WCRF’s agenda is to push lifestyle change to prevent cancers. It says on its webpage:

“World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) raises awareness that cancer is largely preventable and helps people make choices to reduce their chances of developing the disease.

This includes research into how cancer risk is related to diet, physical activity, and weight management, and education programmes that highlight the fact that about a third of cancers could be prevented through changes to lifestyle.”

This is most probably true and a good cause to push but use the ‘worse than Africa’ peg.  Lifestyle and socio-economic status are two very different things.

Don’t believe everything you read. Numbers tell you nothing if you don’t know where they come from.

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