Someone On The Internet Is Wrong

Anything cancer related is a big emotional trigger for me, especially misleading information and terrible cancer journalism. So when otherwise well-meaning people pass around articles that are full of studies quoted out of context, references to anecdotal evidence and facts twisted to fit the author’s personal predilections, I see red.

I don’t fault the people who post these links. They mean well, after all, but when the information doesn’t pass the first level of fact checking, it’s so hard to resist going crazy on it.

Case in point: Two articles on the net. One on MDT: Medical Design Technology called “Sugar Makes Cancer Light-Up in MRI Scanners“, which talks about a new way to scan for tumors that is cheaper and safer than current methods.

The second is a reaction to it on Real News 24 titled, “New MRI research reveals cancer cells thrive on processed sugar,” where the author goes beyond the topic of the original, and adds a secondary premise all their own in that sugar causes cancer.

Let us look at the second article, since it’s the once that most draws my ire.

Paragraph 1. “New research published in the journal Nature Medicine has confirmed that processed sugar is one of the primary driving forces behind the growth and spread of cancer tumors…”

Not that I can find. A search of the Nature Medicine website (which covers Nature, Nature Medicine, and the British Journal of Cancer) shows no reference to this particular study, but there is a host of information on how glucose interacts with cancer cells, especially in growth. Nothing there that I can find, however, says that “processed sugar is the primary driving force behind growth and spread of cancer tumors”.

Please note that in the RN24 article, “glucose” is used interchangeably with “sugar”, which is scientifically inaccurate. More on that later.

Paragraphs 2 & 3. Okay, this is interesting. This refers to the MDT article which proposes a new method of detecting cancerous tumors by using radio waves to “magnetically label glucose in the body” which can then be picked up on an MRI. So instead of injecting people with radioactive material, they can inject the sugar equivalent of half a candy bar.

Of course, when the scientists in the MDT article say sugar, they mean glucose. The RN24 article doesn’t define this, just lets people think they really mean your ordinary table sugar.

Paragraph 4. Here’s where things start to veer off. The RN24 author makes the following supposition: radiation is used to detect cancer; radiation is one cause of cancer. Therefore if sugar can detect cancer, it must therefore be a cause of cancer.

This is known as an argument from analogy. If ‘P’ and ‘Q’ have properties ‘a’, ‘b’, and ‘c’, and if ‘P’ also has the property ‘x’, ‘Q’ probably has ‘x’ as well. This is a common thought argument and a good way to develop hypotheses to be tested or investigated.

This is not the same as proof. Here’s why in this case.

Radionuclide scanning works by injecting radionuclides into the blood stream, which are picked up by areas of unusual activity in organs, which then shows up on scans. This includes tumors, due to their increased metabolism and intake rate. This is the same for the proposed glucose scans. The tumors suck in extra glucose to fuel their enhanced metabolism, so show greater amounts of sugar in scans. So, ‘P’ is similar to ‘Q’ in this property.

Now is where the fallacy comes in.

According to the American Cancer Society, ionizing radiation passes through the cells of the body, knocking electrons off of atoms and molecules, thus occasionally mutating cellular DNA. This could kill the cell or potentially cause cancer.

Sugar itself has not been shown in any way to directly cause mutations in cellular DNA. Increased caloric intake does cause obesity, which itself increases risk of cancer (through methods not clearly understood yet) but this results from eating too much of any energy source, not just refined white sugar.

So in this case, ‘P’ and ‘Q’ do not share property ‘x’. They act on the body, so the connection is a false one.

Paragraphs 5 & 6. First a quote from the study reported in MDT saying this new process could offer a cheap and safe alternative to standard radiation detection. Of course, the RN24 author makes the sugar-cancer connection again, ignoring that the study just quoted, “safe alternative”.

If a half-a-candy-bar amount of sugar was enough to promote tumor growth, it wouldn’t really be a safe alternative. The MDT article quotes the scientists as saying their research “could allow vulnerable patient groups such as pregnant women and young children to be scanned more regularly, without the risks associated with a dose of radiation.”

Cherry picking your quotes is bad journalism. Don’t pick one quote that supports your view and pretend the other didn’t exist.

Paragraphs 7 & 8. More argument from analogy. The article refers to a Dr. Robert H. Lustig who is a Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco. I haven’t gone through his work in detail, but his controversial work seems focused on the obesity epidemic and the effects of excessive fructose on hormone levels, not cancer.

While the RN24 article tries to draw a connection between cancer and Lustig’s work (with the phrases ‘diseases like cancer’ and ‘the bulk of chronic illnesses…caused by sugar’, cancer isn’t a focus of Lustig’s work.

In a 60 Minutes interview Lustig says sugar is related to obesity, type II diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. He doesn’t mention cancer during the interview; RN24 mentioned Lustig’s work only so the author can say sugar is linked to ‘chronic diseases’, leaving the reader to assume that includes cancer.

Paragraphs 9, 10 & 11. Here RN24 talks about the work of Dr. Lewis C. Cantley. Cantley is quoted in the same 60 Minutes interview from above about insulin and cancer. The RN24 article spins his words alarmingly to say that sugar spikes insulin, which causes cancerous cells to use the glucose to grow. Which is true, but:

Lewis Cantley: This is your body… Every cell in our body needs glucose to survive. But the trouble is, these cancer cells also use it to grow. So if you happen to have the tumor that has insulin receptors on it then it will get stimulated to take up the glucose that’s in the bloodstream rather than go into fat or muscle, the glucose goes into the tumor. And the tumor uses it to grow.

All cells have insulin receptors. This is how they know there’s energy in the blood stream to bring in and fuel themselves. Cantley says one-third of tumors have insulin receptors as well.

This doesn’t mean sugar causes cancer. This means when cancer grows, it fuels itself with the same fuel the rest of your body uses. The process is not the cause.

Article done. Lets go back to the RN24 headline. New MRI research reveals cancer cells thrive on processed sugar.

  1. That’s not what the research indicates at all. The MRI research shows they can detect certain prepared types of glucose in cancer cells. It doesn’t talk about tumor metabolism at all.
  2. Processed sugar is not the same as glucose. Glucose is the number one energy source in lifeforms, from bacteria to humans. You find it in nearly all dietary carbohydrates. Processed sugar does contain glucose, but so does almost any other energy source you eat.

You need glucose to live. Sure, cutting off all sugars would starve cancer, but the rest of you would die as well. Dr. Cantley’s research is all about finding ways to cut off cancer cells from the glucose they need, not eliminating the body’s primary energy source.

I know I’ve weaved a bit off my thesis here, so here’s my main points:

  1. Journalists need to be responsible and not make unsupported conclusions or suggest their readers to do the same.
  2. Analogies and similarities do not constitute proof.
  3. Sugar has not been shown in any way to directly cause cancer, other than through obesity. Even then, no evidence exists that it’s the sugar that is causing it.
  4. Cancer loves sugar, but so does the rest of your body.
  5. Don’t believe what you read without doing a little fact checking yourself. I provided my references all the way through this post so that you could read it all for yourself and see if your conclusions are the same as mine or not.

Wonderful research is being done every day on ways to prevent, detect and treat cancer. But the web is full of disinformation – both from helpful people ignorant of the science, and full on snake oil peddlers.

The only way to know which is which is to check the facts.

Word count: 1463
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About shuffledog

40+ stepfather and husband. King of the geeks.

Posted on July 29, 2013, in Cancer, Health and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. …I love you. GREAT break down, fantastic work. ❤

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