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Does Everything Cause Cancer?

The Internet is full of warnings about everyday things that may or may not cause cancer. According to these claims, you should stay away from deodorant, cell phones, disposable chopsticks and even microwaves. It’s hard to make sense of all these claims and decide which ones to listen to. As a result, it’s easy to be resigned to the idea that ‘everything causes cancer’ and that there’s nothing we can do about it. However, new resources are becoming available that may help cut through the confusion.

In April, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center launched the Cancer FactFinder. The site works as a search engine that provides scientific, evidence-based information about whether certain cancer claims are true. The tool is powered by data from human-based studies with the goal to remedy misconceptions about cancer and empower people to make better health choices. The Cancer FactFinder currently lists over 60 common alleged carcinogens and the site will continue to be updated as new information becomes available. Some topics already on the site include red meat, stress, hormone replacement therapy, asbestos and radon.

“We’ve seen a lot of people have unnecessary fears about things that might cause cancer, or they’re overly cautious about things that aren’t based in science,” said Timothy Rebbeck, professor of medical oncology and cancer researcher at Chan. “We want everyone to start asking questions, learn how to get reliable information, think about what it means for them and talk to their families and doctors about lifestyle choices.”

How to Use the Cancer FactFinder

The site’s main feature is its search function. Users can sort possible cancer risk factors by keyword, by category (e.g., consumer products, diet and nutrition, lifestyle, occupational and environmental exposure and medical procedures) or by a variety of tags. Each topic has a corresponding color-coded symbol that indicates whether there’s enough evidence to support or deny the claim that it causes cancer. A green circle means the claim is most likely or definitely true, a red circle indicates the claim is false and a gray circle means there’s not enough information to be certain yet. For example, searching “meat” shows that processed meat and red meat are both known to cause cancer, so they are denoted with green circles. Each topic also includes relevant scientific findings, methods of risk reduction and external sources for further information.

Another useful feature of the site is its “How to factcheck” section, which provides tips and instructions on how to assess health information found on the Internet. It runs through a list of questions that can help discern whether information is reliable. This includes whether the statement is fact or opinion, whether there are reliable sources being cited and how recently the article was published.

Addressing Misinformation and Relieving “Information Fatigue”

When we’re constantly given conflicting information about what is healthy, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and even defeated. If people feel their efforts will be useless in the long run, they may not be motivated to make healthy lifestyle choices. Lorelai Mucci, an epidemiology professor at Chan and project collaborator, said the FactFinder aims to combat fatigue surrounding conflicting cancer information.

“Things like the Cancer FactFinder are important because people can often get fatigued from hearing about things that are bad for them – to the point where they say, ‘I don’t believe anything, and I’m just gonna do whatever,” Mucci explained.

False, misleading and potentially harmful health information runs rampant on social media. According to a recent study, in popular social media articles on the four most common cancers, one in every three contained misinformation. Tools like the FactFinder can help provide accurate information about what causes cancer to help people make health and lifestyle choices that minimize their future cancer risk.

 Ultimately, there is no foolproof method to prevent cancer, and the presence (or absence) of risk factors isn’t a perfect predictor of whether someone will develop cancer in their lifetime. However, more and more evidence suggests there are ways to modify risk for cancer with certain lifestyle changes. The best way to do this is to avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. For more information on some of these risk factors, visit the Cancer FactFinder or check out the LHSFNA’s cancer publications.

[Hannah Sabitoni]

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