“If You’re Doing X, You Might Already Have Cancer!”: A Guide to Addressing Clickbait

We’ve all seen them. “Articles” making the rounds in our news feeds warning of the unbelievable risks we are all taking simply by living our everyday lives. According to these articles, which seem capable of mitosis as their identical twins pop up all over the web, our homes are host to no less than hundreds of cancer-causing foods and products…

It was very easy finding the above examples. All you have to do is type a random number into Google followed by the word “cancer” and you’re pretty much guaranteed to have an autocomplete suggestion like the following:


It’s a game, really. It could be its own category in Google Feud.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. News and media outlets were drawing viewer numbers using fear tactics long before the dawn of the Internet. It’s an adage in the reporting industry known as “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that higher viewership can be garnered by highlighting a news item based on violence, tragedy, or a threat to safety. In the age of the Internet, this frequently translates into listicles that take facts, theories, or sometimes just assumptions about medical health issues and generalize and/or simplify them. These listicles are given provocative titles that make the reader want to click to find out whether their health is at risk, and the articles themselves rarely provide all the available information on a given subject, leaving the reader in a panic. Conveniently, there are ways to keep yourself safe from the evils of corporations and Big Pharma, if you’ll only click on an ad revenue generating link, purchase products from an affiliated company, or go forth and proliferate the misinformation that feeds whatever industry benefits from the contents of the article. It’s incomplete news at best and fake news at worst. So, how does one sift through the mountains of bullshit to find the truth?

1. Know the enemy. (In this example, cancer is the enemy.)

Before you panic about the contents of a news item detailing all the ways you are probably getting cancer, you should understand what causes cancer. The American Cancer Society‘s website provides a comprehensive explanation of what cancer and carcinogens are:

Cancer is caused by changes in a cell’s DNA – its genetic “blueprint.” Some of these changes may be inherited from our parents. Others may be caused by outside exposures, which are often referred to as environmental factors. Environmental factors can include a wide range of exposures, such as:

  • Lifestyle factors (nutrition, tobacco use, physical activity, etc.)
  • Naturally occurring exposures (ultraviolet light, radon gas, infectious agents, etc.)
  • Medical treatments (radiation and medicines including chemotherapy, hormone drugs, drugs that suppress the immune system, etc.)
  • Workplace exposures
  • Household exposures
  • Pollution

Substances and exposures that can lead to cancer are called carcinogens. Some carcinogens do not affect DNA directly, but lead to cancer in other ways. For example, they may cause cells to divide at a faster than normal rate, which could increase the chances that DNA changes will occur.

Carcinogens do not cause cancer in every case, all the time. Substances labeled as carcinogens may have different levels of cancer-causing potential. Some may cause cancer only after prolonged, high levels of exposure. And for any particular person, the risk of developing cancer depends on many factors, including how they are exposed to a carcinogen, the length and intensity of the exposure, and the person’s genetic makeup.

(“Known and Probable Human Carcinogens“, 2017)

Further information is available on the same page, including an overview of how something is determined to be a carcinogen and how carcinogens are classified by various agencies. For the purposes of this article, references to the classification of a substance’s carcinogen rating is according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer:

  • Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2B: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3: Unclassifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans
  • Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans

It is important to note that due to ethical boundaries and other difficulties in determining the carcinogenic risk of a substance, most substances are listed as either “probable” or “possible” due to incomplete data. As the ACS website outlines, testing to determine whether a substance is a carcinogen is done via cell cultures or animal test subjects in the lab. “Most studies of potential carcinogens expose the lab animals to doses that are much higher than common human exposures. This is so that cancer risk can be detected in relatively small groups of animals. It is not always clear if the results from animal studies will be the same for people as they are normally exposed to a substance.”

Basically, there is likely a significant variation in exposure dose, method of delivery, and reaction to the substance from lab tests on animals versus real world exposure to humans. A positive correlation with one of these points does not mean it will be cancerous to humans in any normal exposure. That being said, there has been a consistent trend that what is proven to be carcinogenic in animals is later found to also be carcinogenic in humans.

Understanding the disease and what causes it is not exclusive to cancer. The concept of knowing your enemy can and should be applied to anything you encounter in the media.

2. What is the source of the news?

As mentioned in a previous post, it is exceedingly easy to create a website for the purpose of crafting and driving a narrative to the benefit of a particular person, group, or interest; and, as a reader, it can sometimes be a difficult task to determine the facts on a subject with everyone and their dog declaring their (possibly wrong or misinformed) opinions as facts.

In the wake of the rise of fake news, several other authors/websites have created guidelines on how to determine whether a news source is fake or legitimate. I’ll let NPR do the talking for me on this one, and add just a few points raised in my alternative health post:

  • Who stands to benefit from the claim that is being made?
  • Where did this idea come from and how does it conflict with our current knowledge?
  • What are the benefits and drawbacks of this discovery?
  • What evidence is there to support this idea?
  • Can the result be reproduced multiple times?
  • Are there specific conditions that must be met in order to reproduce the result, and if so, what are the implications of those conditions?
  • Are the beliefs of the study participants influencing the data or the analysis of the data?
  • Is there a better way to approach the experiment to yield more definitive answers?

If you have trouble answering these questions because you simply don’t know enough about the subject at hand, look to the experts for answers. Find scientific literature that addresses the issue and educate yourself. If you’re on the go or otherwise unable to access an online research database like EBSCOhost, a quick look at Snopes.com may do in a pinch for some things.

Be skeptical of grand claims made by health gurus like Food Babe and David Wolfe, who espouse that air is pure oxygen and gravity is a toxin, respectively.

3. Weigh the risks.

Have you heard that browning or burning your toast will cause cancer? I have. It’s been in my feed the last few days, and it is a somewhat legitimate claim. The substance acrylamide is present in starchy foods that are cooked, and has been designated by the IARP as a member of group 2A, “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The IARP also have the following to say about acrylamide:

“classifies acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen” based on data showing it can increase the risk of some types of cancer in lab animals. The evidence in humans was considered to be “inadequate” at the time of the last IARC review of the subject (1994), and at that time acrylamide was not known to be found in foods … It’s not yet clear if the levels of acrylamide in foods raise cancer risk … Acrylamide is also found in cigarette smoke. This is probably one of the major ways smokers are exposed.”

Meaning, there is a possibility that exposure to acrylamide via cooked potato and grain products can increase risk of cancer, but this risk is overshadowed by the risk caused by exposure to first and secondhand cigarette smoke. Certainly, reduce your exposure where you can, but keep in mind that there are more threatening vehicles for the delivery of this probable carcinogen.

The same goes with a a recent study linking the consumption of hot beverages with increased risk of esophageal cancer. The possibility of developing cancer as a result of drinking scalding hot beverages is a suspected risk at this point; however, the metabolism of acetaldehyde associated with the consumption of alcoholic beverages is a known carcinogen. Chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, Dr. Otis Brawley’s words on the subject: “I would say anybody who drinks alcohol shouldn’t even worry about this because alcohol is far more of a cancer-causer than coffee or hot drinks. Anybody who smokes cigarettes also shouldn’t worry about this because cigarettes are a far greater cause of cancer than alcohol.”

4. Stop the spread of misinformation.

It can be difficult to nip an incorrect statement in the bud once it catches on in popular media. My recent go-to example is the clickbait article circling the web that e-cigarettes cause a condition called “popcorn lung”. There are multiple variations on the article, some more unforgivably inaccurate than the others, but the general idea is that e-cigs have been determined to be more dangerous than regular tobacco cigarettes – a claim based on conjecture as laid out by Snopes and the National Health Service – often accompanied by a picture of a man in the hospital, supposedly as a result of developing popcorn lung (spoiler alert: the injuries suffered by that man were actually caused by the explosion of an incorrectly assembled e-cig).


I am not a smoker, nor do I approve of smoking in any form given the possible health risks and general annoyance of having to pass through a cloud of someone else’s cloud of smoke or vape, but misinformation still needs to be stopped in its tracks before it causes harm.

In the above example, the repercussions of believing the unfounded claims of the clickbait article are harmless enough. Perhaps a few people will turn to alternative methods when trying to kick the habit, like gum or the nicotine patch. But what are the repercussions when a serious health condition is the result of unchecked proliferation of misinformation?

Example #1: The Environmental Working Group releases a guide to sunscreens, rating sunscreens based on toxicity of ingredients. A parent sees the guide, and in a perfect storm of not knowing anything about carcinogenicity beyond what EWG tells them, having limited funds to purchase the more expensive “safer” sunscreens on the list, and wanting only the best for their child, decides to forego the toxic ingredients in the accessible sunscreen and in doing so exposes their child to harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

Example #2a: A health guru or natural health page releases a very well-made yet objectively false meme or short video stating that something in your diet is secretly causing you harm, and you eliminate it from your diet immediately. This food item was the only or one of few sources of a required vitamin or mineral. As a result of eliminating the food item, you develop a deficiency and as a result become subject to an associated illness or condition.

Example #2b: A health guru or natural health page releases a very well-made yet objectively false meme or short video saying that you experience x symptom because of y. You very much want to stop experiencing x symptom, and as most people, you want to take the path of least resistance. You never consult with a medical professional and as a result z medical condition goes undiagnosed and untreated while you sink money into something that has no impact on symptom.

Example #3: A close friend or family member is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. The condition is treatable using medication; however, one way or another, the afflicted is convinced that medication is actually making the problem worse and the only way to recover is with a raw food diet, a walk in the forest, and positive meditation. The illness remains untreated and you watch as your close friend or family member gets more sick until eventually they succumb to what was an entirely treatable condition.

The third example is a deeply personal one to me, as a friend of mine was, in fact, diagnosed with early stage breast cancer in 2013, and had she listened to some of the people pushing her away from surgery and toward alternative medicine, she may not be with us today, a survivor at 37.

I’ve made the statement before that pseudoscience is a deeply disturbing trend and while it may be fun to poke and laugh at it, it’s only a distraction from the fact that it harms people financially at best and physically/psychologically at worst. Clickbait perpetuates pseudoscience, leading to blind acceptance of blatant falsehoods. Do not be subject to “alternative facts”. Do your research, but, like, actually, and fight the trend toward willful ignorance.


Categories: health, popular media

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