What's the point of lifestyle research?
‘My grandpa smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, ate whatever he wanted, and still lived to a ripe old age. But my friend was a tee-total, non-smoking veggie and still got cancer – so how can you say that her lifestyle caused it?’
Sound familiar? Many of us know someone who fits the first description. And at the other end of the spectrum, some people who lead the healthiest of lifestyles are still unfortunate enough to develop cancer.
So it’s no wonder that when we talk about lifestyle and cancer, some people are quick to dismiss the evidence and take a fatalistic view – after all, what’s the point of being healthy if it’s no guarantee against disease?
And it’s true that healthy living certainly isn’t a cast-iron guarantee against developing cancer, or any other illness.
But in the same way that wearing a seat belt and sticking to the rules of the road are behaviours that reduce (but don’t eradicate) your chances of being hurt or killed in a car crash, leading a healthy lifestyle by, for example, not smoking and keeping active is about stacking the odds in your favour, in some cases very significantly.
We’ve written extensively about this before, and there’s plenty of information about healthy living and the evidence behind our lifestyle advice on our main website.
But another thing we sometimes hear from some people with cancer – and that we felt it was hugely important to address – is that they feel the finger of blame is being pointed at them when they read or hear about the preventable causes of cancer in the media.
Indeed, a glance through some of the heartfelt comments underneath this article highlights how strongly people feel.
Several people wrote about the media being “judgemental” and having a “moralistic streak” when talking about the preventable causes of disease. But most concerning, some cancer patients said that the coverage made them “feel guilty” about their disease.
We don’t want anybody with cancer to feel that they are in some way at fault for their disease. Apportioning blame under these circumstances isn’t only tremendously insensitive, it’s also unscientific (more on this later).
But understanding the causes of cancer – how our genes, our environment and our behaviour all interact – is a crucial focus for researchers worldwide, including many we support. And, since we’re publicly funded, we have a moral duty to communicate these researchers’ findings to the public.
But how should we go about telling people about the results of this work, without playing the “blame game”?