From soft contact lenses and cosmetics to toilet paper and sunlight, the constant bombardment of news about potential cancer causes can be overwhelming. If “everything can cause cancer,” should we avoid everything? This quick read explains everything you need to know about how to interpret cancer news.
How to Navigate News About Cancer Causes
The following questions and answers can help you understand cancer’s growing list of causes and decide whether you should take action.
Is the information from a reliable source?
Did you know 38% of news consumers in the United States have mistakenly shared unverified or false information – popularly known as fake news – on social media? With the rising number of misinformation circulating online, always double-check if a reputable organization is behind the post and if they have cited their sources.
When it comes to general cancer-related news, here are some of the most trusted websites:
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- American Cancer Society (ACS)
- National Cancer Institute (NIH)
- National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN)
- Relevant medical databases such as PubMed, Google Scholar, ScienceDirect, and others
The information is likely credible if you read a post directly from these sites and their verified social media accounts. However, beware of unfamiliar organizations that might say things like, “According to the National Cancer Institute, kombucha is bad for you,” especially if they DO NOT MENTION THE SOURCE through citations at the bottom of the page or via redirect links to NIH’s claims. Some may also use a reputable organization’s logo to spread fake news and cyber propaganda, so always check the sources before believing or sharing any information.
What if the original source is untraceable?
Sometimes, a post may not cite sources. The information might be widespread knowledge (e.g., too much sun exposure elevates skin cancer risks), easily researched and proven, or the organization/author is providing their personal and expert opinion. In other cases, the organization/author may have published copy-paste content or lacked editorial standards.
Regardless of the reasoning, if the source is nowhere to be found, do your own research. If the news is accurate, a quick Google search should confirm it.
How do I know if the source is unbiased?
In general, established news sources try to provide factual, unbiased information. They usually have journalists, researchers, and experts who are well-versed in health-related issues and have experience covering cancer-causing news.
However, media bias and information dissemination, especially in the medical industry, can be a delicate subject. For example, some say the media supports Big Pharma and its expensive treatments, even though low-cost complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) may provide the same effects. Some well-known organizations, such as the Food and Drug Administration, also lack food safety and regulations that endanger human health, and yet many news sites may overlook or ignore these shortcomings. In such cases, dig deeper and collate information from a variety of trustworthy sources.
What should I do if something causes cancer?
The answers to the following questions can help you confront some of the most prevalent cancer-causing factors:
What type of cancer does it increase the risk of?
While some carcinogens raise the risk of more cancers than others, no carcinogen increases the risk of all types of cancer. Knowing what can, what won’t, and what is unlikely to affect your health can help you decide which action to take. For example, a 2023 study found that avocado consumption may elevate the risk of breast cancer in women while reducing the risk of total and some site-specific cancers in men. As such, women may need to limit their avocado intake while men do not.
How much exposure is too little or too much?
Touching a cigarette today will not give you cancer tomorrow. Carcinogens do not cause cancer immediately, at all times, or under all circumstances. The type of exposure matters, such as inhalation as opposed to physical touch in the case of cigarettes.
At the same time, the level of exposure is a critical factor. Some carcinogens require intense exposure over several years before cancer develops. For example, years of heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of liver cancer (among many other diseases), but an occasional glass of wine is unlikely to heighten cancer risks.
How much do carcinogens raise cancer risks?
Not all carcinogens are the same. For example, cigarette smoking is the #1 cause of lung cancer, as tobacco smoke is a toxic mixture of over 7,000 chemicals. Individuals who smoke are up to 30 times more likely to develop lung cancer (and other chronic diseases) than those who do not smoke. Other known causes of cancer and potential carcinogens, including bisphenol A and acrylamide, do not raise cancer risks nearly as much.
Of course, all things with proven and suspected carcinogenic properties still present dangers, meaning everyone must keep their exposure to a minimum. The point is that the type and amount of exposure can play a role in cancer development.
Should I limit or avoid exposure?
Even if something can or may cause cancer, avoiding all of them is impractical or inadvisable. The sun is one example. It is the main source of harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, burning the skin and boosting skin cancer risks. On the one hand, responsible sun exposure also has health benefits, such as helping the body produce vitamin D. Avoiding sunlight may do more harm than good – from weakening your immune system to making you more prone to bone diseases. In this case, limit your exposure and practice sun safety. Avoid everything else with zero health advantages, including smoking, heavy alcohol use, excess body weight (obesity), and physical inactivity.
Are there other factors to consider?
To some degree, everyone is at risk of developing cancer. People’s risks vary based on individual factors, including age, sex, and genetic makeup – all of which are beyond human control. Those at high risk of cancer due to previous exposures or genetics must maintain regular health screenings to ensure early detection and treatment.
As cancer’s list of causes seemingly grows by the day, knowing what to worry about can be challenging. Ultimately, consuming news and information from reliable sources, as well as understanding how much a risk factor or potential carcinogen affects our health, will allow us to make informed choices when it comes to limiting or avoiding exposure.