Warning! Chain Email Health Hoax!

There’s a nasty kind of email floating around that sounds oh so wonderfully positive and hopeful. It’s titled “The Latestdna.jpg News From Johns Hopkins” (but there are probably other versions, using different prestigious health-institute names). The email takes the reader through a point-by-point, logical-sounding set of “facts” which inevitably lead to the conclusion that cancer should be treated with dietary changes. It’s well-written enough to have reasonable, well-educated people wondering, “could this be true?” Here’s why it’s not true, and why it’s dangerous to unknowingly forward this message along to your friends…

The chain email starts by stating these points: that no one can know if cancer cells are all gone, that surgery spreads cancer cells, that chemo doesn’t get rid of them all, and that only your body can wipe them out–therefore you should eat a certain way (avoiding “acidic” red meat, and “mucous-producing milk”) and take “supplements” (vitamin E is the only one specified) as the sole treatment for cancer. This is a really interesting list of assertions that have been known for quite a while–none of which have anything to do with Johns Hopkins (or any one medical center). The problem with the list is that it implies that you can cure cancer just by changing your diet, which is a hideous untruth for people who are desperate, sick, or afraid. In the first place, “cancer” is a widely different group of entities–cancer of the pancreas is nothing like cancer of the skin, for example. Breast cancer has a widely variable history, while liver cancer is a (generally) relentlessly predictable tumor. What this kind of chain email does is link together half-truths, then draw conclusions that, in the end, aren’t true–kind of like saying 1) “The bank is open on Mondays,” 2) “Banks are robbed on Fridays,” 3) “Therefore, if you deposit your money on Monday, you’ll never be robbed.” A basic understanding of physiology is missing.

Here’s what is true about this information–
1) All of us do, in fact, as best we know, generate cancer cells all the time (yikes!). The fact that we know about it now, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been happening since the dawn of time (!). The reason we know this is because of people who have lost their ability to wipe those individual cancer cells out when they arise–either through a genetic mutation at birth (shudder) or through something that has happened to them (medically). It is also true that no one has a special test that can see all cancer cells, down to the very last one.

2) Here is what is NOT true in this email: once a clump of cancer cells is big enough to find, your body has generally lost the battle to contain it–big time. It’s like when someone gets a bad infection: if you take antibiotics, those medicines do not kill off every germ–instead, it is your body that does it. Antibiotics give your body a hand, and once many/most of the germs are killed by the antibiotic, it is your body that kills off the very last germs and then sweeps them all away. We also know this is true because of people who’ve lost the ability to do it–even a teeny infection kills them. Chemotherapy is the same principle as taking an antibiotic–it kills off a major chunk of the problem, but not all. Sometimes the act of cell-death, with cancer cell pieces floating around, wakes up your immune system to get in there and start cleaning house. Newer cancer treatments actually show your immune system the cancer cell and stimulate it to attack–like a custom-made vaccine. This is given in addition to chemo, not as a solo treatment. Why is that? Seems like taking a vaccine and avoiding chemo would be a better way to go, doesn’t it?

3) The problem is, clinical experience has shown that just like with infections, by the time the cancer is big enough to be a problem, your immune system is not up to dealing with it all alone. Imagine if you had a big, horrible pneumonia and a doctor suggested that what we should do is give you a vaccine (which your body is too overwhelmed to notice), and change your diet. Think that would work? Um, no…

4) All that being said, once we know that our body is constantly on the look-out for cancer cells and sweeping them out, it is really important to promote your health–who wants to get to the point where the body has lost the battle? Vitamin E, which this email mentions, actually is kind of dangerous–a HUGE study looked at giving vitamin E to smokers, and the study found that smokers died MUCH MORE of lung cancer if they took vitamin E. The theory is that the vitamin actually fed the cancers more than the host.

5) Everything else, about vegetables and whole grains, is good in terms of health promotion, but NOT cancer treatment. The idea that red meat is a problem because it is “acidic” is sadly laughable–nothing is more acidic than grapefruit (great for you) and soda (horrible for you). The same is true about the “milk” claims–mucous? Hello? The data on milk and cancer is a mixed bag–milk is generally bad in studies where people are drinking whole milk (fat is bad), but good in studies where milk is all the vitamin D anyone is getting. Vitamin D (which didn’t get mentioned in the chain email) is the main regulator of your body’s ability to find and kill cancer cells, so being low on vitamin D is bad for that (but wasn’t mentioned in this email).

So, in summary, if you want to stay healthy, promote your health! (eat fruits and vegs, exercise, limit red meat, take one multi-vitamin plus a total of 1,000 units of vitamin D a day, and DON’T smoke–amazing how that one also got left out). Living well, however, does not guarantee health (all our bodies can stumble and fall, often for no clear reason). When badness happens, a decent diet and exercise is not going to treat your cancer, any more than it will treat your overwhelming pneumonia…

Cancer treatment should be individualized, both for the person and the type/stage of cancer. Get a second, reputable opinion if you’re worried about the treatment recommendations. If you know anyone’s who’s gotten this chain hoax email, feel free to send them the link to this post. Misinformation, in matters of life and death, is a dangerous thing.

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