Health & Environment by Débora Miranda

Cancer: a man-made disease?

The excesses of modern life are often pointed out as one of the biggest influences on high rates of cancer worldwide. Yet these rates have only been reliably recorded in the UK since the 1970s – whereas back in the pre-industrial civilisations the life expectancy was too low to be compared to nowadays’ data.

That is the warning given by Dr Kat Arney from the Cancer Research UK on the Science Update Blog, after the media has claimed this week that cancer is a modern, man-made disease, according to a new study of ancient remains.

“This is not only scientifically incorrect, but misleading to the public and cancer patients”, says Dr Arney. Although our lifestyle and factors such as tobacco use and pollution do make us much more likely to develop cancer, comparing modern to ancient cancer rates is no correct evidence, especially given that age is the major risk factor for cancer.

In fact, many cancers are motivated by natural causes that have been around for a very long time. The ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the single biggest cause of skin cancer worldwide. Viruses motivate one in ten cancers in the UK, for instance the human papillomavirus as the cause for cervical cancers. And aflatoxin, a natural chemical that grows on peanuts and grains, is a significant cause of liver cancer in some African and Asian regions.

Also the New Scientist has analysed what is wrong with this study. Modern life does increase the risk of cancer, being smoking the cause for a quarter of all cancers. However, the concept of modern life stands for choices that people can change, and not an unavoidable scenario as the research implies.

The impact of this study is feared because blaming industrialisation for cancer might make people feel helpless about the situation. They could even think that exercising more or drinking less would not decrease the risk of developing cancer.

Moreover, will the people reading the Daily Mail generally be the same readers of the Science Update Blog or New Scientist?

This is just another example of how influent science journalism for the masses can be in people’s lifestyles and understanding of diseases.

You keep reading that if you eat gone-off food, you may get stomach cancer. If you drink too much, you may get liver cancer. If your mobile is next to your bed over night, you may get brain cancer. So the assumption of cancer as a modern disease is somehow correct – in the social sense of it.


One response

  1. Good points well made – when putting it in the context of then-and-now, it’s definitely worth noting the average life expectancy, the medical advances and the massive population boom that have all contributed to inflated statistics.


    October 20, 2010 at 2:36 pm

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