Thursday 2 January 2014

Hoax email and website on "how to avoid cancer"

This is nothing to do with running, but I feel like the following is worth highlighting.

I was a bit disappointed yesterday to see this blog post being posted around Facebook from some of my friends. The blog purports to discuss new research from Johns Hopkins that essentially says that eating healthily and exercising is an effective alternative treatment for cancer than chemotherapy and radiotherapy. To quote:
There then follows a point by point description of why cutting out sugar, milk and meat from your diet and exercising can replace nasty cancer treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. 

Now believe me - I hate cancer. Like many of you out there, it has touched my life on a personal level, so much so that I actually moved fields while studying for my PhD to enter into the field of cancer genetics to try and help find a solution. And that is why articles like this really piss me off.

To be clear - this article IS A HOAX.

It is not just wrong advice. It is dangerous advice. Your first point of call, and the advice that should trump all others, is that from a medical professional. However, it is inevitably an incredibly difficult time, and of course anything that you can do to help is obviously encouraged. Complementary treatments are used by many people. But these should always be in addition to and never instead of medical treatment. 

One thing to remember is that a lot of research and testing has gone into chemotherapy drugs and the like, whereas alternative medicines have essentially zero regulation, and sometimes no credible research either. Research that is published in some back-woods journal that nobody has heard of might cut it in a relatively underfunded field like sports science, but I'm afraid that in this field any radical conclusions had better be based on research in a high impact journal.

This particular article is based on a hoax email that has been doing the rounds, and Johns Hopkins have released a press release specifically to combat the false claims made in this article. This rebuttal is very clear and succinct, so if you want a full run-down on everything that is wrong with this article (almost every single one of the "facts" is incorrect), then please read it. 

But I found myself making my own list of corrections for one of my friends when he was genuinely interested to find out what was wrong. I have copied and pasted my post below, which was written in haste to just cover some of the basic points to clearly show why you should not trust this information. There are probably some errors here, but I haven't bothered to correct it because I feel like there is a good lesson to be learnt here:

Please do not take medical advice from a blog!!!

First of all their interpretation of what a cancer cell is is very naive. Cells show mutations all the time, due to mistakes in the DNA replication machinery, or brought on by environmental factors like UV radiation, smoking, etc. But the body has an amazing system in place to check for errors and either correct them or remove them. If something happens that prevents these checkpoints from working correctly, cells can grow unchecked which leads to tumours. What we call "cancer" typically is a tumour which has also developed the ability to spread to other sites in the body by a process known as metastasis, where cells break away into the blood stream or lymphatic system. This is why it is so difficult to fight because they are not localised to one place, so chemotherapy is used to attack the cells throughout the blood/lymph system. So this idea that "cancer cells occur 6-10 times in your life" is erroneous. Mutations occur millions of times but generally don't do anything. This article follows the very basic idea that cancer is a thing. Cancer is a catch-all term for many, many diseases that result in uncontrolled proliferation of cells. 

The immune system is not really involved in fighting cancer - it's nothing to do with how strong it is. Cancer cells are not detected by the immune system because they are not invading cells. That's kind of the point - they bypass the intrinsic checkpoints so the body can't detect that there is a problem. 

Whilst diet is a risk factor for cancer, and obviously eating healthily is a good idea, there's no evidence that "when a person has cancer it indicates multiple nutritional deficiencies". 

Whilst it's true that chemo and radiotherapy can also damage healthy cells (that's why you feel terrible and have issues like hair falling out), they are actually incredibly specific in their action. But improving recognition of the malignant cells in one of many areas of research in the field. 

I've never heard of surgery causing cancer to spread - I believe that this is entirely untrue. 

The idea that cancer cells respond in any way to the foods that you eat is ridiculous. What you eat can act as a risk factor to whether you get cancer in the first place, but the micro-environment of the cells themselves is not dependent on how much sugar you put into your body. 

Addendum: Whilst the idea of generally eating healthier having an effect on the micro-environment for cancer growth (as seems to be the point of the email) is largely bunk, a few studies that do show how diet can be used as effective cancer treatments have been brought to my attention by Andrew Jordan in the comments below. Whilst these are much more extreme dietary changes than simply not eating cakes, they are very interesting. A couple of examples are the works of Valter Longo et al who show that fasting can lead to cellular changes that protect them from the damaging effects of chemotherapy, and the work of Adrienne Scheck et al who show that switching to a ketogenic diet (almost cutting out carbs entirely and increasing fat intake so that ketones are utilised instead) can be used to treat some neurological conditions (e.g. epilepsy and brain cancers) since ketones are not metabolised as efficiently as carbs in the aberrant cells. 

Cancer does not "feed on mucus". 

It's "Johns Hopkins", not John Hopkins. 

It's "dimensions" not dimmentions. 

Again, exercise is good for you, but not because it makes you breathe more. You can breathe as much as you like but you're not going to create an oxygenated environment that will prevent growth of cancer cells. 

Believe me, I hate cancer as much as the next person, and it was my mother being diagnosed with breast cancer that made me focus my research on cancer research. I now work in one of the top epigenetics labs in the world trying to do what I can to help in the fight against cancer. But articles like this are not just unhelpful, they are downright dangerous. This is very very bad advice, that will unfortunately be taken at face value by some people.


  1. Good post. I agree that the email and website referred to are hoaxes (who knows what the motivation behind them was,) but I think there was a nugget there that might have some basis in reality.

    As well as an ultra-runner, I am also a cancer patient - I was diagnosed with a brain tumour three years ago and while it was low-grade, there is always the possibility, or even likelihood, that it will later transform to something which is more devastating. Hey ho.

    I am not a biologist, but am a sceptic who is currently studying for an MSc in Cancer Studies and also sit as a lay member on the Brain/Central Nervous System TSSG (Tumour Site Specific Group) at Oxford University Hospitals. I am speaking from the viewpoint of someone with a cancer for which medical science really has no answer at all - someone with a GBM (Grade 4 brain tumour) has a median life expectancy of around 14 months currently, which is 3 or 4 months better than it was 40 years ago.

    There are papers out there which dp describe a potential benefit from cutting out sugar (all carbs actually) - indeed, I am in the process of transitioning to a medically monitored ketogenic diet right now. The rationale is that (some) tumours thrive on glucose and cancer cells may lack the versatility necessary to be able to utilise ketones as an energy source. The ketogenic diet has been shown to slow down the progress of prostate tumours in mice (but was not a cure, sadly). I believe that one of the major U.S. centres is currently recruiting for a phase 1 trial, but it's all a bit ad-hoc in the UK and a patient absolutely needs to be their own best advocate. There are also papers (by Longo et al., from memory) which describes fasting as having a similar effect.

    See you on the trail.


    Andrew (Jordan)

    1. Thanks for your comment Andrew. I'm very sorry to hear about your condition, and I hope that it does not progress to anything worse for you. Many thanks for pointing me towards the research that you describe - I will update the post accordingly. I only have a very limited knowledge of ketogenesis (from people I know that have switched to this form of diet for endurance sport), but it is very interesting to me that this could provide an improved environment for cancer prognosis.

      Thanks again and all the best!


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