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July 26, 2022 | 7 minute read

Battling Myths and Misinformation on Cancer Science for Decades

AICR has been part of the great advances in research about how we can reduce cancer risk and improve survivorship for 40 years. It’s a balancing act to get life-saving, evidence based information into the hands of people, while at the same time holding back information when conclusions are still tentative.

Sources of Confusion About Nutrition for Cancer Prevention & Cancer Survivorship

In AICR’s early days, one of the biggest obstacles keeping people from adopting eating habits that could reduce cancer risk was lack of awareness. Studies were showing the potential that a healthy diet could play. But back in these pre-Internet days, the concept of eating more vegetables and whole grains while limiting meat consumption was often viewed as coming from “fringe” authors who people didn’t trust for scientific accuracy.

Today we have a different challenge. In a world of 24/7 news coverage and multiple sources vying for people’s attention, tentative findings from very preliminary research are brought to people’s attention, often without help putting it into perspective.

Different types of studies serve different purposes.

  • Basic research aims to understand essential biological processes, like the factors that increase or block growth factors and cell signals that influence cancer cell growth, or how genes regulating cell growth are triggered or suppressed. For example, these studies may uncover how compounds found in foods intersect with antioxidant or anti-inflammatory pathways.
  • Translational research builds on findings from basic research, working step-by-step to find ways that results might be included in eating habits that could be tested in a human clinical trial.
  • Clinical trials test whether an intervention—like a specific change in eating habits or physical activity or use of a dietary supplement—can produce desirable changes in humans and whether they are safe. First steps often involve a small pilot study of a few people, which may be expanded to larger groups. If successful, these can then explore whether results are the same in people who differ in age, sex, ethnic background or health conditions.

Single studies don’t supply actionable advice.

All these types of research are important and are part of the step-by-step scientific process. Along the way, some studies will produce inconsistent results. This can be confusing for people when the results of research are reported in ways that don’t make it clear that the findings are preliminary.

Amid growing interest in nutrition and cancer over the years, there can be a temptation to selectively report on certain studies while ignoring evidence that comes to different conclusions. Commonly referred to as “cherry-picking,” this can be intentional or unintentional. But either way, it leaves people confused over what information is worth acting upon.

More recent evidence may outweigh older studies.

Improved quality of research over the last 40 years provides stronger answers for many reasons.

  • Large population studies are now capable of following people for many years.
  • Newer statistical techniques allow scientists to pull together results of multiple studies to get a clearer overall picture.
  • Biomarkers can improve the accuracy of estimates of what people eat. Others have been discovered that allow researchers to identify conditions in the body that relate to cancer risk, development and progression.

Examples Through the Years

The nature of the Internet allows results from earlier studies to continue to circulate despite higher quality studies that later debunked those findings. And when an individual, or an author who is not fully knowledgeable about the body of research, pulls up a single study from the Internet, it’s easy to become confused by earlier conclusions contradicted by current research. As a result, in addition to proactively sharing valuable information from reliable research, AICR has always tried to help people understand why some advice they encounter—sometimes triggering a lot of unnecessary fear—is not a solid foundation for making lifestyle changes.

Over the years, AICR has clarified misinformation about an asparagus “cure” for cancer, addressed fears about sugar directly “feeding” cancer and debunked studies suggesting that compounds misunderstood as “phytoestrogens” in soy foods pose cancer risk. Due to careful evaluation of research findings and selection of evidence, recommendations from AICR have remained remarkably consistent across time.


A Good Question: What’s Behind the Misinformation?

When you search for answers to your questions about how lifestyle choices can influence cancer risk or cancer survivorship, you’ll find wide-ranging answers.

While you can find valuable information from many different sources, some may present more of a red flag suggesting caution in how much you trust it.

Where’s the money? If a company or person is selling something—a book, a dietary supplement, a food product or a coaching service—studies that seem to support a need for that product may be selectively highlighted.

Another example: reasonable wording about emerging evidence might say something like, “Early evidence about X shows promise; more study is needed.” But blogs and news media generate more advertising income when a controversial or intriguing headline triggers you to “click” for more (hence the name “click-bait”). That makes it tempting to instead use statements like, “Everything you knew about X is wrong.”

Is misplaced enthusiasm leading to bias? Sometimes a writer gets excited about a particular mechanism (like estrogen- or insulin-related pathways or environmental toxins). Sometimes a researcher sees great promise in their own work and loses sight of other important findings. And sometimes someone becomes convinced that the results of changing their individual eating habits prove they’re the best solution for everyone.

In these and other cases, selectively focusing on one side of research or one approach to eating can lead to sharing just one part of the picture of how lifestyle choices help protect against cancer.

Too soon? We all want answers now. But watch out for impatience that leads to promoting a conclusion before it’s been adequately tested. It’s important to make sure that a finding in one study was not a result of some random error or applicable to only certain people. It’s also important to look for unintended consequences of a change in nutrient consumption or eating habits.


AICR Resources: A Consistent Source to Address Misinformation and Overwhelm

Misinformation comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s false information, either based on preliminary research or misinterpretation of reliable research. Sometimes it’s an over-emphasis on one solution—like one kind of eating pattern—without making space for other solutions that work for different people or different life circumstances. And sometimes misinformation is simply contributing to overwhelm—leading people to feel that lifestyle choices can only make a difference when they’re so perfect that they can seem out of reach.

Throughout the years, although the types of misinformation have changed and the technology with which to reach people have evolved, AICR has continually had as part of its mission to help people living in a sea of misinformation.

  • AICR helps people make sense of cancer science. Originally this was limited to print sources like brochures and a newsletter. Today this includes the AICR website. Here, people can access findings from the Third Expert Report, recognized around the world as the gold standard in research review and analysis. And the Food Facts Library summarizes current findings about foods that offer protection and foods that should be limited to reduce risk.
  • AICR helps people translate strong scientific evidence into practical lifestyle choices. For example, AICR’s New American Plate is a simple model for healthy eating that boils down recommendations to a few priority strategies.
  • AICR provides support for people making healthy changes one step at a time. Especially in a time when it can seem that the unhealthy choice is always the easy one, ongoing support for gradually making changes can make all the difference in building a healthy lifestyle for the long-term. The Healthy10 Challenge is a free online program that helps people focus on one step at a time. And recipes on the website and in newsletters show how healthy eating can be both practical and delicious.

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