A people’s rebellion against the cancer cops?

If it’s true that the British public is ignoring cacophonous cancer warnings, that isn’t a sign of stupidity: it’s the height of rationality.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

‘A quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds rarely think about cancer.’

As a news story, this surely ranks alongside ‘dog bites man’ and ‘Gordon Brown photographed looking sullen’ for its mind-numbing predictability. Why should young people think about cancer? According to statistics, 140,080 people died from cancer in England and Wales in 2007, and 189 of them – or 0.135 per cent – were in the 20- to 24-year-old age bracket. Just as young people don’t sit around fretting about being struck by lightning or dying in a plane crash, so there is little reason for them to contemplate cancer.

And yet, in our health-obsessed age – when all of us are supposed to be five-a-day-eating, navel-gazing, waist-measuring worriers about our bovine constitutions – the revelation that young people think little about cancer has generated handwringing. It springs from a BBC survey of 1,000 people, unveiled on Newsnight last night, which also suggests that a third of all British adults ‘try to ignore cancer’ or ‘hardly ever think about it’, and that 60 per cent of us think the government has provided quite enough advice about the alleged link between lifestyle and cancer yet still we refuse to change our diets or manacle ourselves to exercise bikes at the local gym (1).

The cancer-combating authorities are outraged. The BBC headlined its panicked report: ‘Cancer risk is “not changing habits”.’ Dr Karol Sikora of CancerPartnersUK says the survey shows that people think they have enough information about cancer, or want more, yet ‘when they get it they don’t do anything about it’. Richard Evans of the World Cancer Research Fund was shocked that so many of us seem not to know – or care – that ‘things like diet and body fat are linked to cancer’. People need to hear the ‘positive message’ that ‘by making healthy choices today, they can reduce their risk of development of cancer later in life’, says Evans (2).

The image is of a wilful morass of people who, despite hearing messages about cancer day in day out, refuse to ‘change their habits’ accordingly. In fact, if it’s true that people don’t think about cancer often and haven’t changed in response to ‘cancer messages’ – and let’s bear in mind that opinion polls frequently find what they want to find rather than what is there, and finding ‘ignorance’ can be useful indeed for crusading moralists – then that isn’t evidence of stupidity; it is the height of rationality. The most sensible thing to do in response to today’s tsunami of warnings about the cancers that might spring from what we eat and how we play is to ignore it.

People’s refusal to change their lifestyles could be based, not on brain-cell deficiency, but on an instinctive recognition that it simply isn’t possible for everything to increase our chances of contracting cancer. The alleged link between diet, lifestyle and the Big C is more controversial than today’s self-selected cancer tsars would have us believe. It is of course true, and proven, that smoking cigarettes increases one’s chances of getting lung cancer, but there is little hard evidence that certain foods or a lack of exercise can ‘cause cancer’. For example, the World Cancer Research Fund’s report of 2007, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, was widely reported to have ‘proven’ a link between bad eating, slothfulness and the development of certain cancers – yet of the 17 cancers discussed in the report, virtually all had ‘statistically non-significant associations’ with food (3).

It is striking that today’s cancer elite continually uses the slippery epidemiological phrase ‘is linked to’, as in ‘processed meat is linked to colon cancer’ or ‘eating chips is linked to breast cancer’ (4). That is because they are not talking about indisputable causal relationships – such as that between sucking in nicotine and an increased risk of lung cancer – but rather possible and statistically tiny or even statistically insignificant links between certain kinds of activity and certain cancers; they’re mostly talking about ‘associations’ rather than ‘direct relationships’, and associations do not lend themselves to public health interventions or to blanket advice about how many times a week we should tuck into a juicy steak or how long we should spend lifting dumbbells.

John Brignell of Numberwatch, a website that baits bad science, has monitored the media and made a list of all the things that allegedly ‘cause’ or ‘increase the risk of’ cancer: there’s abortion, alcohol, baby food, barbecued meat, the pill, bottled water, bread, bus stations, celery, Chinese food, chips, deodorants, fruit, gingerbread, kissing, lack of exercise, left-handedness, mobile phones, working night shifts, not breastfeeding, Nutrasweet, orange juice, Prozac, PVC, tight bras, toothpaste, sunscreen, talcum powder, and many, many more (5).

When every normal thing we do, from having toast in the morning to taking a sip of Evian, from spraying on some Right Guard to making reproductive choices, is discussed as a ‘cancer risk’, is it any wonder people are apparently ‘ignoring the messages’ in favour of getting on with life as normal? It is the cancer messages that are irrational, and ignorance of them that is eminently, admirably sensible.

The explicit concern that cancer advice is failing to ‘change people’s habits’ – failing to make them healthier eaters or frequent walkers or risk-conscious workers – unwittingly shows how political the Big C has become. This is less about disease prevention than behaviour management. At a time when top-down morality is seen as stuffy and old-fashioned, health advice has become the means through which do-gooders seek to judge our daily behaviour, shape our mores, and punish our transgressions.

‘Scientific evidence’ replaces moral judgement, obesity takes over from gluttony, and illness becomes the new comeuppance for wayward behaviour. Under this ‘tyranny of health’, cancer has come to play the role of threatened damnation, the ultimate punishment that awaits those who eat the wrong foods, refuse to shape up and, most importantly, do not kowtow to health advice from on high. No, this new health-as-morality regime is not a conscious conspiracy; there’s no group of Daily Telegraph-imagined ‘health fascists’ conniving to use cancer as a stick with which to beat the misbehaving populace. Rather, health advice has slowly but surely filled the gap left by the fall of morality, its focus on the body and its preying on individual fears perfectly suited to our era of low expectations and heightened individuation.

Susan Sontag wrote about the ‘metaphoric flourishes’ that made cancer ‘synonymous with evil’, so that ‘having cancer has been experienced by many as shameful’ (6). Today, all of us are cajoled into fearing cancer as the possible outcome of our choices and behaviour, and are encouraged to ‘change our habits’ in order to pre-empt and avoid this modern-day mark of Cain. Cancer today is a metaphor for our discomfort with the modern world, with life itself, so that everything – from the food that sustains us to the work that drives us to the relationships that excite us – is relabelled as a potential harbinger of the Big C. Encouraging ‘cancer consciousness’ is really about encouraging us to recognise and accept our inner frailty and fragility, where self-examination – of the breast or the testicles – becomes a ritual that reminds us we are mortal, conquerable, in the hands of the gods (of the new cancer elite). If some people really are rebelling against this cancer authoritarianism, and snubbing the writ of the cancer cops, then they deserve a pint as congratulations – even if ‘for every two units a person drinks each day (less than a pint of premium lager), their risk of bowel cancer goes up by eight per cent’ (7). Allegedly.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Patrick Basham and John Luik exposed four fat myths about obesity and cancer and discounted other flabby claims, too. Dr Michael Baum reviewed The Secret History of the War on Cancer. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick examined the dangers of smear testing. Or read more at spiked issue Health.

(1) Cancer risk ‘not changing habits’, BBC News, 6 April 2009

(2) Cancer risk ‘not changing habits’, BBC News, 6 April 2009

(3) See Flabby claims about food and cancer, by Patrick Basham and John Luik

(4) Chip-eating kids ‘raise breast cancer risk’, Daily Mail, 19 August 2005

(5) The complete list of things that give you cancer (according to epidemiologists), Numberwatch

(6) Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, Susan Sontag, Picador, 2001

(7) Drink a day ‘raises cancer risk’, BBC News, 24 February 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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