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Cancer and the Media -- They Still Don't Get It

By Elizabeth M. Whelan, Sc.D., M.P.H.

This morning, the TV show Fox and Friends hosted a discussion of the "war against cancer" featuring Congressman Clay Shaw (R-FL), who has undergone surgery twice for lung cancer. Rep. Shaw spoke of his goal to wipe out all cancer within the next nine years -- noting that he was lobbying for more research monies to find a "cure" for all cancers. In the ensuing discussion, Fox hostess E.D. Hill noted with frustration that there was nothing we can do to prevent cancer -- it just happens, she said. She added that about the only thing we can do is "adjust our diet" in some ways.

Two observations are in order here:

First, setting a goal of wiping out all cancer in nine or any number of years is absurd and unachievable. It is about as realistic as proposing a war against death and smugly predicting the elimination of all death within nine years. Cancer is largely a disease of aging. It will always be a leading cause of death. Our goal should not be to eliminate cancer and cancer deaths but to reduce premature cancer mortality and morbidity.

Second, incredibly, the interview with Rep. Shaw never once mentioned cigarette smoking as a cancer risk factor. Indeed, it is the leading preventable cause of cancer death. This is even more shocking given the fact that Shaw himself is suffering from lung cancer and 90% of lung cancer is causally linked with cigarette smoking. To have Hill state that there was nothing we could do to prevent cancer other than tinker with our diets completely distorts our understanding of cancer causation. Over 35% of all cancer deaths in the United States are caused by cigarette smoking -- including cancers of the lung, bladder, cervix, pancreas, oral cavity, and other sites. (On the text crawl during the interview, there was a reference to diet and smoking being linked with cancer.)

The next time you hear people who are tired of smoking warnings give you assurances that "everyone knows that smoking causes cancer," remember this Fox News segment on preventing cancer, where the leading cause of cancer death was never mentioned.

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