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Foundation misleads vulnerable cancer patients with clickbait diet advice

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Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

Check out this misleading headline from the largest funder of cancer research in British Columbia:

We can reduce cancer by 90% by changing our diets

The source is BC Cancer Foundation (the fundraising arm of the BC Cancer Agency); more specifically, Gerry Krystal, PhD, a professor at the University of British Columbia who just started blogging for the foundation, and who researches the effect of diet on cancer or, in his words:

“… particularly how a diet low in carbohydrates can be one of the best ways to prevent — and even manage — a cancer diagnosis.”

This bold statement — and the headline — appear to be based on coupling these two claims by Krystal:

  • A high carb diet triggers insulin secretion and “insulin is pro-inflammatory. This is important because chronic inflammation is responsible for just about all the ills that befall us as we get older — not only cancer, but rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.”
  • “Over 90% of human cancers are not caused by genetic predispositions, but by carcinogen-, and/or chronic inflammation-induced mutations during our lifetime.”

Three problems

First, these two claims are unproven and Krystal offers no supporting evidence to back them.

Second, the only data Krystal does refer to are his own mouse studies. There’s no evidence these translate to humans. Period.

Third, he goes further to provide nearly a dozen food recommendations to “lower your cancer risk” including:

  • Soluble  fiber: “it feeds the good bacteria in your colon, which produces anti-inflammatory molecules to keep you healthy ” (and “improve your outlook on life.”)
  • Bananas: “don’t eat ripe bananas; eat green bananas” (green = more anti-inflammatory)
  • Olive oil, lemon juice, or vinegar: “they lower your glycemic index by 30%!”

Again, no scientific evidence is cited to support these claims.

Who benefits here?

Fortunately, the response on Twitter was brisk, apt, and touched upon all three of the problems highlighted above. Leading the rebuttal was Tim Caulfield, a frequent contributor to HealthNewsReview.org, and a professor of Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta.

But beyond the outrage expressed in these tweets is the fact that this misinformation is being spread by a blogging cancer researcher, on the website of an organization that raises funds for what is otherwise a publicly funded, provincial health care provider whose mission is to address incidence, mortality, and quality of life issues of cancer.

This raises the question of who is better served by publishing such non-evidence-based content? The fundraisers? Cancer patients?

What about the three-fold mission of the BC Cancer Agency? Is that well served?

“I can tell you as a cancer patient it’s doubly frustrating,” said breast cancer patient Sonya Canavan of Colorado.

“If we have PhD’s in ‘positions of trust’ giving unsupported and misleading advice, then who ARE we to trust for legitimate health and medical information?”

An inadequate headline change

Caulfield’s tweet caught the attention of the BC Cancer Foundation. Their response? Simply add a “could” and a question mark to their unsubstantiated headline:

‘Could following this diet prevent up to 90% of cancers?”

Some might think that the addition of a “could” and a “?” represents a thoughtful retreat from ill-advised, cause-and-effect language.

We see this tactic quite a bit. A sort of passive abdication of accountability.

But the fact remains that the accompanying article still uses causal and declarative language.

And ask yourself this: Do you really think those two changes altered readers’ perceptions? As in ‘Will Coffee Help You Live Longer?’ makes readers pause and say: “I’m not going to read that! I bet the answer is ‘no’.”

Take note: a 2014 analysis by the Media Insight Project found that about 6 out of 10 Americans admit they did nothing more than scan the headlines in the past week.

And that’s just the people that admit it.

The natural habitat of clickbait is not in the middle or end of an article. It’s the headline. And if 4 out of 10 of us aren’t getting past that, we’ll never know if the article even remotely supports that headline.


Further reading:

5 tips for writing better health news headlines

What cancer patients think about misleading cancer coverage

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Comments (1)

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Terri Dee

July 9, 2018 at 7:42 am

I agree 100% that this is a click-bait headline and should never have come from a cancer researcher, of all people. The public has been dragged to and fro for decades by false claims, unsubstantiated evidence and glaring, contradictory headlines and it needs to stop. That said, it’s also important to note that there is no evidence to the contrary here, ie. that diet does ‘not’ have an effect on the development or treatment of cancers in the human body. This area needs to be heavily researched until a clear consensus is reached.
As to who benefits from headlines like this? That’s up for discussion, but who does ‘not’ benefit from it is those who manufacture ‘devices’ and pharmaceuticals (and that is very appealing to those who’ve been down that path with other chronic health issues) If dietary/lifestyle changes are thought to be enough on their own, then I agree that this is a dangerous path to take for those actively battling cancer, but I see no harm in trying ‘any’ dietary changes one might want to try in ‘addition’ to traditional medical interventions. I’ve seen such changes in my own health from following a ketogenic way of eating that I would be more than willing to apply this dietary intervention as part of a cancer treatment plan in my life or in the life of loved ones.