- Who can get cancer?
- Consider the source
- Consider the science
- Types of human studies on cancer risk
- Studies that observe humans
- Human testing: Clinical trials
- A closer look at the evidence
- Other questions about studies on new ways to prevent cancer
- What does this mean to you?
- To learn more
- Appendix A
Consider the source
For starters, you will want to look at where your information on the cancer prevention method came from.
- Was there a report in the newspaper or news magazine?
- Was it discussed on a television or radio program?
- Did the news come from an Internet site, possibly even one that also happens to be selling the treatment?
- Was it suggested by someone in a health food store or nutrition center?
- Was there a study published in a respected, peer-reviewed medical journal such as the Lancet or the Journal of the National Cancer Institute?
- Did a friend tell you how well this new method is working for them or someone else?
Newspapers or news magazines
If you see a report in a respected newspaper or magazine, don’t just look at the headlines—sometimes they can be overstated, confusing, or even misleading. You will need to read the article carefully to find out where the reporters got their information. Look for these things:
- Is this a press release from a company announcing a new breakthrough in cancer prevention?
- Is it a report from a clinical study that was given at a scientific conference?
- Is it a report from a study that was published in a respected medical journal?
- Where was the study done? What’s known about the research centers that conducted and sponsored the study?
If the report was on television or radio, you’ll want to know if what you saw or heard can be trusted. Was the news reviewed and reported by a doctor, or was it a non-medical person such as a reporter or news anchor? Some news organizations hire medical reporters so that medical and health news can be reported more clearly to the public. Journalists without medical training don’t usually understand all of the medical background and related research on the subject, so they may not be able to give a clear, unbiased view.
Was it a commercial or an infomercial? Keep in mind that these are ads that tell you only what they want you to hear. You have to listen carefully to learn if studies have been done, and find other reliable sources to learn more. (See the section called “Was it from a seller’s promotion?”)
If you heard about a study on a reliable news report, try to remember the details. Look for the kind of information that you would try to get from a newspaper (listed above), including the source of the new information. Finding these facts from broadcasts can be much harder than using printed reports, because it’s hard to remember everything you hear on a short TV or radio spot. It’s also tough to go back and search for these facts after the broadcast is over. Even if you can recall everything you heard, important details may have been left out because programs have so little time to cover the subject.
Some news outlets post extra information or replay their newscasts on their Web sites, so that may be a good place to start. If you’re unable to find more on the broadcaster’s Web site, you may want to try contacting the TV or radio station to get your questions answered. It’s better to do this right away rather than to wait. Sometimes, a question that might be answered easily a day or two after the broadcast might become impossible to find after a month or two. If it turns out that part of their report was in error, you may find corrections or clarifications online soon after the report was aired.
In the section, “Consider the science,” we will go into more depth about the important details you will want to get from a news report, no matter where it came from.
If someone told you that he or she (or others such as friends and family) is healthy and feeling great using this method, it’s called anecdotal information. But because cancer takes so long to grow and get started, and it happens more to older people, it’s fairly rare for younger people to develop cancer.
Many people go through life with no sign of cancer, and those who have cancer tend to get it when they are much older. So of course you wouldn’t be surprised if a large number of people hadn’t developed cancer while they were using a certain prevention method, especially if they are younger or middle aged. This is why researchers follow large groups of people over many years to learn how often cancer strikes, and whether a certain type of treatment or method may lower the risk.
If you’ve been told someone’s personal story, can you check and find out more? Keep in mind that a person may credit an herb or supplement with feeling better, even though there may be other factors involved. And sometimes, a person’s belief in a method may be enough to make a person feel better for at least a short time. (See our document, Placebo Effect for more complete information on this.)
There are many other ways that people with good intentions can reach the wrong conclusion from a single person’s experience, or even the experiences of a group of people. This is why scientists look at cancer prevention methods under such careful conditions.
If the report came from an Internet seller, you may have lots of searching to do. Many of the cancer prevention methods sold there talk about the powers of herbs and supplements that have never been proven to reduce cancer risk or make people healthier.
Some sellers have been caught using outright lies and fraud to make their Web site look official. A few have even made up studies or implied their product was endorsed by the American Cancer Society or approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some have posted fake quotes from doctors, sometimes with pictures of actors dressed like doctors. Others reported studies that were either never done or were misrepresented and said they were from well-known cancer centers.
Even though many sellers are honest, there are always a few who will go to extreme lengths to sell their product. Sometimes the staff at nutrition centers and herbal shops will suggest ideas or even prescribe “immune boosting” or “cleansing” herbs to help prevent cancer and other conditions. Studies on the accuracy of recommendations from nutrition centers and herbal shops on cancer prevention methods are not yet available. But studies have been done using people who reported that they already had cancer, and asked nutrition center staffs about possible treatments. The research showed that treatments were often suggested that were not proven to help people with cancer. In fact, some of the suggested treatments could have caused harm. (For more information on these treatments, see our document Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?)
There are also commercials and “infomercials” that present new cancer preventives on television. These are often set up to look like news interviews, and can be very misleading since they are carefully scripted by the sellers of the product. In fact, you may learn that some of the people who sell prevention methods and other “secret cancer information” in these ways have been jailed for fraud. They may use some of the same tactics as those who market from the Internet to convince the buyer that their product will help. When such reports are first aired, they can sound very promising, and people want to think there is a miracle that can protect them from cancer. It can be hard to know what to believe without more information. Some of these will cite studies without saying where they came from, or they will quote statistics from unreliable sources. Even worse, some will give glowing information and say it came from a reliable source—but when you go to look for it, the information isn’t there at all.
What about press releases?
Sometimes a company will put out a press release about some promising substance or compound that claims to prevent cancer. This is sometimes done based on a lab study, an animal study, or a small clinical trial (a type of study in humans). Even if the press release came out after a large study was done, the company is only telling the press what they want the public to hear. This is not the same as having fellow scientists take a careful look at the study methods and outcome. You will want to know more about the actual study outcome, not just the parts the company wants the public to know.
What about conference presentations?
Sometimes researchers will share information with other doctors and health professionals at scientific conferences. This information is often an early look at a study that can sometimes sound very dramatic and make headlines. Reporters go to these conferences looking for just this kind of story.
Again, it’s important to know who is doing the study and where they work. Sometimes, the study is being done using all the careful methods of a well-run clinical trial, and the researcher is sharing his or her early data with the audience. But the final outcomes of these studies are not complete at the time the findings are presented. And, in most cases, the science review (or peer review) that’s needed before a study is published has not yet been done. By the time the study is published – if it even gets published – the results may be quite a bit different from the conference presentation. You will still want to look at the final report to find out what was done and how it turned out after the data was fully analyzed.
Last Medical Review: 09/04/2012
Last Revised: 09/04/2012