William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

The Coming Cancer Panic

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Maybe it won’t be cancer. Maybe it will be irumodic syndrome or Clarke’s disease. Or maybe it will be something else. But probably it will be cancer.

If I had to guess, I’d say specifically pancreatic cancer will soon rise to media-panicable levels. Studies will be conducted. Wee p-values will be produced. Work for lawyers will be discovered. The government will spring into action. San Francisco will find new things to ban.

Because why? Because it will be observed that pancreatic cancer rates are rising to hitherto unknown levels. This increase will be a true increase. Rates really will rise. It will not be a statistical aberration. The increased angst will therefore seem justified.

Who will be to blame? Cardiologists, mostly. That’s right, your friendly heart doctor in going to assist in unleashing a wave of painful deaths! Pulmonary specialists of various stripes will also share in the ignominy.

Because why? Because once cardiologists figure out how to stop people from dying of heart disease (and incidentally stroke and some other things), and since heart disease is by most counts the number one killer of human beings, and because you must die of something, then necessarily something else will be the number one killer.

In other words, saving people from mortal myocardial infarctions must necessarily cause them to die of something else. And whatever this something else is—and like I said, I’m guessing cancer—must naturally increase in its lethality rate. And since our media, legal, and government is designed for panicked response, look out!

There are two main reasons I’m guessing cancer. First is that great strides are being made in cardiology at every level, and that lethal cancers are much harder to treat than other diseases, and pancreatic cancer is next to impossible to treat. You can keep going with a chunk of your liver missing, and you can still digest your Corn Flakes without a stomach, but no pancreas and it’s So Long, Sarah.

Reason deux depends on how you count and where. The CDC says cancer is already the number two killer in the USA, pretty close behind heart disease. Coming in at number three but lagging way behind are various chronic lower respiratory diseases. So, reduce heart disease and cancer becomes number one by being next in line. Cancer rates will surely rise in the US of A.

The WHO breaks down (and I don’t vouch for how they did this; my point is only for illustration) causes of death by country income group. They say
lower respiratory diseases (not counting malaria) lead the way in the poorest countries, which rings true, followed fairly closely by HIV/AIDS. So, since lower respiratory diseases are (now) much easier to cure than HIV/AIDS, we’ll see in poor countries a rise in HIV/AIDS deaths.

More proof that cancer rates will rise can also be had by the WHO data. In the poorest countries, cancer doesn’t even make it onto the list of top 10 causes. But that’s because it’s hard to die of cancer when you’re dying faster from protein energy malnutrition (that’s also a cautionary note to you vegetarians out there).

Still no cancer in the top 10 in lower-middle income countries, but heart disease is number one. Malnutrition disappears but cirrhosis joins the august company. Thus does adding a few dollars to your wallet increase the risk of drinking yourself to death.

Cancer (liver and stomach) finally nabs the bottom two slots in upper-middle income countries; finally, once we group all the high income countries together (of which the USA is one) lung, colon, and breast cancers are three of the top 10. And so are Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

Well, everybody knew these facts, which are in any case not surprising. But everybody will forget these facts once we start noticing the increase of whatever it is that will kill people in absence of heart disease. It will be as if some new bad thing is happening that is causing the outbreak, when the opposite is true: that something good happened in cardiology.

The causes and circumstances of this new number killer were always there—they are here now—but they just didn’t have a chance to operate so we don’t notice what they are. But once these are given their day in the sun, we will notice them and they will seem new and newsworthy and litigatable and politician-righteousness-guaranteeing and every other thing damn thing wrong with our culture.

But when it happens, remember that you heard it here first!

28 Comments

  1. I’ve found myself more than once trying to make this point in conversation. When informed with tones of concern by my friend about the rising incidence of some fatal disease, I reply, “We should find a cure for that so we can all be immortal!” Unfortunately, the usually fails to get my point across. Now I’ll just point them to this article.

  2. The answer, of course (tongue firmly in cheek), is banning GMO does not go far enough. Only fruits and vegetables from heirloom seeds should be allowed on the market.

    We should go back to when there were no crop failures for crops that didn’t fail. and when people who lived to 100, lived to 100. Those a wee p-values!

    You can bet, that foods will be under even more suspicion as p-values get wee- er and wee-er, as people who eat food get more and more cancer.

  3. Briggs

    October 9, 2014 at 9:49 am

    John B,

    You remind that I should have said that false attributions will also increase.

  4. The NIH will spend its allotted fiat currency on something so why not the next most prevalent disease? Sort of a meritocracy of the malignant. Better than “fighting” toxic CO2 by far. Being able to grow a pancreas from stem cells would be a worthy avenue of research. Then on to the next most difficult disease.

  5. Briggs, you did imply that in the beginning

    If I had to guess, I’d say specifically pancreatic cancer will soon rise to media-panicable levels. Studies will be conducted. Wee p-values will be produced. Work for lawyers will be discovered. The government will spring into action. San Francisco will find new things to ban.

    I just fleshed out what “should” be banned and where the government, lawyers and San Francisco will concentrate their effort.

    (Have we figured out the food pyramid / hourglass? / circle?. I wonder what geometric shape should represent our next set of nutritional needs?)_

  6. We are all ticking time bombs with cancer. Genetics, some environmental (with a huge amount of invalid environmental attribution presented in media), and probability. DNA damage in just the right way…and that one cell starts reproducing and doesn’t stop.

    The “Emperor of all Maladies” is an excellent book on the history of the fight against cancer.

    Those who are expecting a “cure” for cancer are going to be waiting a very long time. In my view the progress here has been pretty marginal for the investment extended. There are some isolated success stories, and life expectancy has been extended a little further in many cases, unfortunately at the expense of a longer painful death sometimes. Chemo has gotten more effective and less painful in many cases, but it is still a bludgeon of a tool.

    But cure? Not even close.

  7. And so are Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

    Are these fatal or do you carry them to your death — like baldness for some?

  8. Ultimately, there will be a media-panicable event based on the discovery that growing has the highest risk.

  9. sorry, “growing older…”

  10. Tom Scharf – I was explaining cancer treatments to my kids the other day (one of my sisters is afflicted) and ended up saying: modern cancer treatments mostly consists of doing horrible things to your body on the hope that your healthy cells will make it through while the cancer cells won’t.

    Bludgeon, indeed.

  11. Schools are now removing swings because more children are injured by swings than anything else. After they remove the swings then something else will cause the most injuries and it will then have to be removed. Soon the children will be kept locked in class all day to prevent them from being injured. We are raising a generation of crybabies.

    The war on cancer has been going on for over 40 years and the National Cancer Institute still doesn’t know what causes cancer.
    http://training.seer.cancer.gov/disease/war/

  12. Briggs

    October 9, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Ray,

    Love that example!

  13. @Ray,

    “Soon the children will be kept locked in class all day to prevent them from being injured.”

    You are overly optimistic about how far this will go. Each child will be kept locked in his/her own individual padded and hermetically sealed room.

  14. No pop tarts allowed. They can make dangerous weapons, ‘sides they got sugar.

  15. What happens when the kids lock in their own rooms develop severe depression and give up on life and will themselves to die? Sure, we can drug them for a while, but eventually it could be come so bad that authorities are forced to admit that being locked in your own room is the leading cause of death.

    I have had this conversation with people—the reason many people die of cancer is they don’t die of anything else first. Removing the “number one cause of death” just moves second place up to first. People still die. It often receives a blank stare.

  16. My prediction is that in the future that people will be prevented from using their hands. I imagine that some kind fashionable straight jacket will be popular. Nutrition will be intravenous. People will just sit quietly until their time comes.

  17. Instead of looking at the cause of death we should research what enhances a longer life. William Saroyan was once asked what he considered had contributed to his long life. His answer, “I haven’t died yet”.

  18. The number one cause of death in the United States is abortion.

    “In 2011, 1.06 million abortions were performed, down 13% from 1.21 million in 2008. From 1973 through 2011, nearly 53 million legal abortions occurred.”

    Source: Guttmacher Institute.

  19. Briggs

    October 9, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    JohnK,

    Quite right. Good correction. Thus the post is speaking of death by nonviolent means.

  20. … and coming up from the rear is an antibiotic-resistant pale rider on his horse. Don’t forget pestilence, including pestilence due to dormant viruses.

  21. Joseph Moore,

    This is correct. The goal of chemo used to be to literally give the patients as much as they could tolerate. Kind of poisoning the patient as close to death as possible in the hope cancer dies before the patient does. They have gotten smarter about effective dosage over the past several decades, but it is still kind of a guessing game.

  22. Latest “cancer scare” seems to be artificial turf—the ground up tires that resemble dirt. It’s said to cause cancer in soccer goalies and parents are pulling kids out of the sport unless they play on grass. Not sure what happens when they find out how many chemicals it takes to grow pretty, green, grass-covered soccer fields.

  23. It was Rachel Carson who scared the world with “DDT causes cancer”, which it doesn’t.

    There is so much cancer because people have nothing left to die from.

  24. Sander van der Wal

    October 10, 2014 at 2:07 am

    One point, people are still dying, but not as quickly as they used to do. Not dying today from heart problems is still not dying today.

  25. @MattS:

    “You are overly optimistic about how far this will go. Each child will be kept locked in his/her own individual padded and hermetically sealed room.”

    You are overly optimistic about how far this will go. Each child will be killed before it gets to the age where it can suffer or make others suffer.

    Oh wait…

  26. Sheri,

    It seemed in the 1970’s and 1980’s everything (including tap water) was being linked to cancer. And as we all know when the term “linked” is used it usually means a statistical correlation of any strength without a specific causal mechanism even pondered in many cases.

    This got so bad that the public pretty much tuned out on any of these reports. They are basically ignored now completely, although a new trendy version of the “X has been linked to preventing cancer” is reported occasionally.

    The same thing has happened with “climate change has been linked to X”. This got so out of control over the past decade that almost everyone ignore it now. It’s unclear to me why the serious climate scientists never clamped down on this.

  27. I read an interesting theory the other day that cancer might be a reversion to a more primitive state of cells caused by a genetic or external change – they just reproduce like mad because it’s what the cells are ‘pre-programmed’ to do. I don’t think the author had many wee p values to back it up though. The thinking was that if one increases the oxygen levels of the body and reduces carbohydrate intake, one can kill off or reduce the ability of these “primitive” cells to multiply. But telling people to not eat all those “healthy” grains we’ve been told to eat would go against the USDA’s recommendations. Could it be that in 100 years, we’ll look back, smoking our cigar, and wonder why people voluntarily ingested cancer causing corn and wheat?

    Or perhaps, in 100 years, there won’t be anyone to look back since having children is inconvenient.

  28. I remember Weekend Update on an old SNL episode with Dan Akroyd as anchor where one of the top stories was “Saliva Causes Stomach Cancer”. A satirical look at the myriad stories of “links” to cancer that were happening at the time as referenced by Tom Scharf above.

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