Food and Cancer: Where Does Our Collective Fascination Come From?

As you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, phony connections between food and various types of cancer (or cures for cancer). Over the past few months, we have been looking at turmeric, tomatoes, coffee and a bunch of other exciting ingredients that do not, in fact, cause or cure cancer in any measurable way. Instead of concentrating on a specific food or beverage, in this post we are going to be looking at our modern obsession with connecting food through the interesting lens of a recent internet post called Cervical Cancer: 7 Foods to Eat to Lower Your Risk. The reason this particular article drew my attention (and may draw yours) is not because it is particularly bad or inaccurate when compared to the rest of the popular “science” or “medicine” articles on the internet. Instead, it is because cervical cancer is one of the very few cancers that does, in fact, have a direct cause: HPV.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is believed to be almost entirely responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancer cases in the world. HPV infects cells in the cervix and hijacks their internal molecular machinery, forcing them to replicate uncontrollably. From the perspective of the virus, this is simply a way to propagate, forcing the cell to do its dirty work and make as many new copies of itself as possible. However, from the perspective of the person who is infected with HPV, this is a disaster. The moment the virus manipulates the cervical cells into dividing out-of-control, it starts a series of events that cannot be stopped. Uncontrolled cell division is the first and most crucial step in how cancer develops – and is how HPV ultimately causes cervical cancer. This does not actually only happen in the cervix, but also in the male genitals, the rectum and the throat. HPV is sexually transmitted, which means that its spread can be stopped by practicing safe sex. However, the rates of HPV infection are so high (HPV is symptom-less, and it infects vast percentages of the population in westernized countries) that in order to eradicate it young people all over the world (mostly women) have been immunized against HPV. Vaccination is safe, highly effective and if it is carried out at a high enough rate, consistently for enough years is going to eradicate HPV and, as a result, cervical cancer (as well as slash the rates of throat and rectal cancer).

In other words, while of course there is much to be done in the way of improving treatment, working on vaccination programs and understanding how to treat those who have already been infected with HPV, cervical cancer is one of the few malignancies where we pretty much have it covered. We kinda get it.

What, then, is the point of looking at “7 foods to lower your risk”? We already know how to lower risk. Get vaccinated, practice safe sex and get regular pap scans to make sure you and your doctor can intervene early if you do develop the very early stages of cervical cancer. These are effective, practical things. And yet, the article feels the need to inform us about seven vegetables that may or may not protect us from cervical cancer. Except, of course, they do not. The evidence provided by this type of article is, of course, not actual evidence. It is, at best, a digest of other articles like it. It is complete, unscientific nonsense. Naturally, eating vegetables is good for you. Eating a healthy balanced diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the best and easiest thing anyone can do to keep healthy. And all the vegetables on the “anti-cervical cancer” list are healthy options. But they do not, by some magical or natural property other than the fact they are healthy food, prevent people from getting cancer.

The question, then, is why. why do we have this need to find other solutions, aside from the perfectly good ones we already have. The reason bloggers write articles like the one we are discussing here is that people love to read them. But why? The only possible explanation, it seems to me, is that all the good, medically-sound ideas like getting vaccinated, using condoms and getting pap tests all seem menial, boring and somehow ineffectual against the enormity of our fragility. Cancer, the Big C, is one of the few truly terrifying things left in our time. We no longer worry about infant mortality (not really, anyways), dying of pneumonia or smallpox. Those of us who are not straight white men now have legal protection against a lot of what used to terrify us. While the world is still a pretty scary place, it is still a lot less scary than what it used to be. In it, cancer plays a much larger role in the landscape of things that scare us than it used to. And perhaps mere medical recommendations, things to put on your calendar and remember, things that are covered by insurance feel as though they do not have the necessary weight to combat the sense of our own mortality. This keeps us worrying, and it keeps us clicking.

No harm done. Right? I don’t think so. Unfortunately, not everyone is as on board with the magical marvels of modern medicine. People have always doubted technology, and they still do today. Especially, for some reason, when it’s to do with vaccination. And articles like this imply, to the point of suggesting, that medicine isn’t enough, or that it isn’t the only sane choice. Perhaps, some people may think, if you eat all the carrots and dark leafy green in the world, you get to skip the HPV vaccination. Or maybe the pap tests. And that can cost lives, especially considering that most young boys are still not receiving vaccination as a part of their regular schedule.

In other words, please eat the carrots. They are good for you, and delicious. But remember, they are not magical

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