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    Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion

    We are fortunate to live in a world that provides us with information, lots of it and instantaneous. Newspapers, radio, TV and now the Net report breaking news as fast as a reporter can type. The problem is that to fill all these sources with quality information is a tough job. Sound bites and catchy headlines bring a higher audience rating. The tons of information that flood our media tends to be simplified and sensationalized.

    When this is done with scientific studies we get confusing information. The latest evidence is the news that a high fiber diet does not reduce the incidence of colon cancer. Two large studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine on April 20, 2000 reported these results. The results of the Harvard Nurses Health Study that were published in January 1999 said basically the same thing. For years, reports have been coming out that a high fiber diet prevented colon cancer. Now it seems that the first study reports were premature.

    In breast cancer news this happens all the time.

    One study reports that soy will prevent breast cancer while another says that the estrogen like compounds found in soy can be harmful for breast cancer patients with estrogen receptor positive tumors.

    One group reports that hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women with a high risk of breast cancer should avoid the treatment while another study shows that it is beneficial.

    Dietary fats increase your risks - wait, no, there's no link between dietary fats and breast cancer.

    The recent news events surrounding high dose chemotherapy with stem cell transplants are another example. First the benefits were inconclusive, then it was a miracle treatment, then fraud in a study threw the procedure into question and now some studies are suggesting that there may be some benefits to it after all.

    If doctors are confused, and they are, what are we supposed to do. These studies are not just academic exercises for those involved with the day to day struggle to fight breast cancer. Life and death decisions are being made based on this information. How are we to know what information is from a poorly designed study or one where the researcher's bias clouded the results?

    There are ways to weed out the bad information.

    Go to the source.
    Someone else's interpretation of a study may be based on what they wanted to hear and not on the facts. Make sure you get your information directly from the research and not from media reports. Go to pub-med or scirus and pull up the studies that you need to see. Most of the online references have a way to contact the researchers directly. Write, call or email them with your questions. Researchers love to discuss their work.

    Don't jump to the wrong conclusions.
    A study that cranberries prevented breast cancer tumors in mice does not mean that eating cranberries will cure breast cancer or prevent it. Mice are not people. Take the knowledge and wait for the studies that confirm that cranberries have been found to prevent breast cancer in humans before you go on a strictly cranberry diet. It may well be that the amount of cranberries needed to prevent breast cancer in humans will provide a toxic dose of some other ingredient in cranberries, or that cranberries just don't have the same effect on human cells as they do on mice no matter how many you eat.

    Talk to your doctor.
    Part of your doctor's training involved reading research and looking for bad science. Bring the studies to your appointment and ask questions. If your doctor doesn't have time or isn't interested in your information -- find one who is. That doesn't mean find a doctor who agrees with you, but one who is too busy to think about your situation and talk to you may not be providing the kind of support you need.

    April 24, 2000

    Last updated March 31, 2006




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