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Cancer controversies

Find out the truth behind some common cancer myths and controversies. Research has shown that our lifestyles affect our risk of getting cancer. More than four in ten cancers could be prevented through healthier lifestyle choices, such as  being a non-smoker, drinking less alcohol, eating a healthy, balanced diet, being active, keeping a healthy weight and being SunSmart. Not only can these things help cut the risk of cancer, importantly they're all within our own control.

But people are often more concerned about things in their environment, particularly the trappings of modern life, from mobile phones and power lines, to stress and deodorants. This section will tell you more about these topics.

A sense of perspective

The evidence linking these things to cancer varies greatly. For example, there is no good evidence that deodorants cause cancer but there is greater debate over the potential risks of power lines.

It is unlikely that any of these will turn out to be major cancer risk factors. Even if any links were eventually proven, the effects would probably be small. For example, experts believe that power lines would cause fewer than five cases of childhood leukaemia, if any, out of a total of around 500 cases a year. In contrast, tobacco causes more than 60,000 cancer cases a year in the UK.

Media stories

Stories about potential causes of cancer are reported widely in the media, and it isn't always clear which ideas are supported by good evidence overall and which aren't. Our Science Update blog has more information on interpreting media stories on cancer, and how you can separate fact from fiction for yourself. It's also a good place to look for the truth behind those cancer headlines.

'Chemicals' and cancer

The world around us and everything in it, including us, is made up of chemicals. And many of the rumours about things thought to cause cancer are based on common misunderstandings about chemicals. The claims often assume that if a chemical is linked to the development of cancer in cells in a lab experiment, it will also cause cancer in humans. But this is misleading for a number of reasons.

Human beings are much more complex than cells in a lab dish

Many concerns arise from studies that test the effects of chemicals on cells in lab experiments. But applying a high dose of a chemical directly to cells in a dish is very different to how we might be exposed to that chemical in real life. For example, our skin forms a formidable barrier and prevents many chemicals from being absorbed. And when unwanted chemicals do get inside our bodies, our natural defences spring into action and try to break them down so they can be safely removed. So something which is harmful to cells or even animals may not cause health problems in humans.

The dose may be different

At very high doses, many common chemicals are dangerous to our health. For example, taking a standard dose of ibuprofen will help to reduce inflammation but taking too much may cause stomach ulcers.

High doses of some chemicals contained in things such as cosmetics may cause cells to become cancerous in a laboratory experiment. But usually these chemicals are found at much lower doses in cosmetics.

Some chemicals are detected in the body at levels of 'parts per billion' - this equates to one grain of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

Natural chemicals are not necessarily better for you than man-made ones

Some rumours about chemicals and cancer also often imply that synthetic or man-made chemicals are worse for you than natural ones. This is not scientifically meaningful because natural and man-made chemicals are not fundamentally different. Many natural chemicals can cause cancer so avoiding synthetic chemicals will not have a large impact on your cancer risk.

The charity Sense about Science has produced an excellent document about chemicals and our lifestyle

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 27 March 2014