Monday January 04, 2016

Study blaming cancer on 'bad luck' spurs scientific debate on findings

Luck versus lifestyle:  Which is more important when it comes to cancer?

Luck versus lifestyle: Which is more important when it comes to cancer? (Courtesy of the American Cancer Society via Getty Images)

Listen 23:40

Bad lifestyle choices... or just plain bad luck?

Duelling cancer studies both made headlines in 2015, with competing explanations for what truly lies behind the dreaded cancer diagnosis. It started last January, when a study in the journal Science suggested that when it comes to variation in cancer rates, random chance plays a bigger role than previously believed, compared with environmental or lifestyle factors.

The report set off concerns that it could undermine public health efforts to curb activities such as smoking and drinking. Not to mention concerns about the way news media reported the findings... and the study itself. 

Then, just last month, a competing view emerged, downplaying the role of bad biological luck after all.

Cristian Tomasetti is an assistant professor in oncology and biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University. He was a co-author of the Science study from last year highlighting the role of bad luck in cancer variation. We reached him in Baltimore, Maryland.

Non-small cell lung cancer

Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common type of lung cancer. Some experts worry the "bad luck" people will undermine public health messages about lifestyle. (Ed Uthman/Flickr cc)

The so-called "Bad Luck" study we've been hearing about certainly made some big waves in the scientific community when it was first published.  The World Health Organization went as far as to say that its emphasis on early detection rather than prevention could "if misinterpreted... have serious negative consequences from both cancer research and public health perspectives."

Wei Zhu is one of the co-authors of the recently published study in the journal Nature that pushed back on the "bad luck" hypothesis. She is a professor and deputy chair of the department of applied mathematics and statistics at Stony Brook University.

Have you checked yours?

The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation campaign wants women to take control of their breast health. (Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation)

The scientific studies we've been talking about may be all about hard data and numbers, but their conclusions certainly engage the public imagination, and help shape the way we all think about cancer. 

Jerry Devins is a senior scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He studies the psychosocial impact of cancer.


This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.