Tag Archives: cancer

How to field stupid science questions from people who should know better. (Alternatively titled: 10 Ways to Spot What NOT to Share on Facebook)

what not to shareFor years now, in person and via email, I’ve been fielding stupid questions about medicine/science from people who should know better.

Just last week I went to an orthopedist (who shares office space with a plastic surgeon) for some pain in my thumb.  The ‘medical assistant’ asked me what I did for a living (presumably ‘professional thumb wrestler’ might have hinted at the cause of my pain).  When I said ‘scientist’ she asked what I did more specifically.  I told her I was a researcher and studied cancer at a biotech company.  At that point she started telling me about some of the patients they see for breast reconstruction and how she was convinced that the government and drug companies had the cure for cancer but were keeping it a secret.  I replied, “How much money would you pay for the cure if you were dying of cancer? You don’t think they’d make more money if they sold the cure?” At which point she took her conspiracy theory to a whole new level I didn’t know existed.  She said, “They are hiding it so INSURANCE companies can make money.”

At that point I realized what I was up against.  She was a ‘medical assistant’ with ‘medical training’ and therefore had an informed opinion on this topic. Surely I was no match for her, what with my measly 15 years of cancer research and all.  So, I just looked at her like the idiot she was, rolled my eyes and said, “Yeah.  Right.  OK.”

Who the heck does that!?  You work in a doctor’s office you dolt!  I just told you I’m a cancer researcher and you suggest I’m complicit in a high-reaching, broad-ranging, multi-national, corporate-government conspiracy to make money by hiding the truth?  Really?

I wanted to walk out right then, but my thumb hurt and I had waited several weeks for the appointment.


With the ‘medical assistant’ (if that’s the kind of assistance she provides, I think I’m better off without it!), I didn’t have a relationship I wanted to salvage so I was fine with being blatant in my response to her lunacy.  However, with friends and family members, I do (presumably) have a relationship I want to remain intact.  So, when my cousin and uncle, at separate times, asked if it was true that companies were hiding the cure for cancer, I said something like,

Glad you’re asking.  You’re right to question that conspiracy theory. It’s not true.  If there were such a cure, it would be priceless.  People would pay anything to cure themselves or their loved ones.  How would hiding the cure make money?  Regardless, there is no conspiracy.  Cancer is incredibly complicated, there are thousands and thousands of researchers all over the world who have been working for decades and decades trying to figure out the causes and mechanisms, and we’re still a long way off.  There is no cure.  If there were, do you think I would let my aunts suffer and die from cancer?  Do you think I would let my uncle suffer through another surgery?  Do you think I would let my mother have lumpectomies and biopsies and live in fear that she too will get breast cancer?  Do you think my colleagues would stand up to accept awards and tell the stories of people they love who died and inspired their work?  Do you think we would watch children die?  No, we wouldn’t.  There is no cure, there is no conspiracy, cancer is just that hard to figure out.

I try not to be offended that by even asking, they imply I would do those things, that money could make me turn a blind eye to the suffering of the millions who die each year.  I’m pretty sure the problem is that they aren’t thinking at all, that’s why they even entertain the conspiracy.


Now that Facebook exists and most poeple I know are on it, it’s cut down on ridiculous emails and face to face conversations.  Instead people post crazy stuff and I have to decide whether to point out the fallacies or just ignore them.  For instance:

A FB friend (who worked at daycare and was training to become a teacher and should know First Aid) posted this gem:

egg burns

The caption with it was some BS story about a person putting egg whites on a burn and EMTs saying the person had saved the victim’s skin.  Um.  Has any Red Cross First Aid class EVER suggested this?!  No.  Because it’s not true!!!  You run a burn under cool running water (or submerse it in cool water) for 10 to 15min.  If it’s severe you call 911. While I sometimes let this kind of garbage slide, this woman should know better.  I commented and left the links below on the photo.  Plenty of her non-critical-thinking friends posted comments with their favorite home remedy- butter, etc. So, I gave up.  (For a reliable source of first aid instructions, see the Mayo Clinic here or the American Red Cross here.)

Not long after this, she posted about aspartame being “Sweet Poison” and causing Multiple Sclerosis- and she tagged me asking if it were true (because that’s easier than just thinking about it and/or checking Snopes herself?).  I linked to Snopes and called it a day (as I drank my aspartame riddled Fresca).

I’ve also seen this BS in my feed several times, including from a librarian who, you would think, would easily be able to find a source to verify the info included:

Really?!  What does ‘active internal organs’ even mean?  Does my pancreas have an off switch I don’t know about?!  How in heaven’s name are all these people dying of stroke and heart attack when all they have to do is drink water?!  Note the web address of the source.  Reminds me of the saying, “You know what they call natural cures that work?  Medicine.”

This is another that is all over FB and I have to stop myself from commenting and being the know-it-all b!tch:

The "FALSE" is my embellishment, Source: https://www.facebook.com/natural.herb.benifits?filter=2

The “FALSE” is my embellishment, Source: https://www.facebook.com/natural.herb.benifits?filter=2

Cinnamon and Honey can do all that?!  Why the hell am going to work everyday with all these scientists researching all these diseases?!  Honey and cinnamon for everyone and we can all go home!  And seriously, they cure the common cold?!  I thought that was just some Shangri-La myth of Star Trek that we’d actually cure the common cold in some distant century.  And again, let us take note of the source.  I don’t trust medical info from people who can’t spell the word ‘benefits.’

Then, just last night, there was this one about Apple Cider Vinegar:

Source:  a chick on Facebook who calls herself "The Nut" which is fitting.

Source: a chick on Facebook who calls herself “The Nut” which is fitting.\

I commented on the photo when my friend shared it, “The only way cider vinegar prevents flu and stomach illness is if you use it to disinfect surfaces.”  You can’t kill cancer cells in your body by drinking vinegar.  It might make your hair shiny and kill fungus when you soak your finger nails in it, but you’re not going to dissolve your kidney stone so long as it’s still in your body.

So, I’m not sure.  Do people just share randomly?  Are they being ironic?  Do they believe this stuff to be true?  Should I make a note of who posts these things and send them a Ponzi Scheme chair letter in the mail?  How do you deal with this lack of critical thinking without alienating the people you know?


How do I deal with it?  Well, if they are asking me if something is true I say something like, “You’re right to be skeptical.”  Even if it’s clear they believe it and are kind of throwing it up there like, “Oh yeah!  Well explain this one know-it-all!  Let’s see how you handle this one!”  I try to let them save face by pretending they ARE thinking critically and questioning the content they are sharing.

One friend recently posted a link to an article entitled, “Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys” on my Wall with the comment, “Umm. Why?”

Clearly her asking ‘why’ implied she believed that it was true (which it is not), like, “Why are vaccine developers doing this?”  Rather than point out how gullible she was for believing something on Underground Health, I started my response with, “You are right to be questioning this, and I’m glad you’ve asked. It’s bogus.”  I then summarized that they are talking about polio vaccine in the 50s and 60s (not current vaccines), it was a virus that was in the monkey cells used to make the vaccine, once the virus was discovered/identified steps were taken to get rid of it, the virus doesn’t cause cancer in humans and nobody who got the contaminated vaccine developed cancer as a result, and I referred her to this great take down of that misleading BS.

She never commented on my response.  I’m sure it’s embarrassing to personally put your own gullibility on display, even if the person who responds is gracious.


So, in closing, I’d like to leave you with a few links that can help you distinguish the bunk from the facts.

Be Careful Who You Ask” in which I discuss sources of parenting information.

Real Science vs. Fake Science: How can you tell them apart?” where Emily Willingham gives pointers on how to tell the difference.

Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience” where Rory Coker, PhD discusses the difference between the two. This might be particularly helpful when it comes to those FB images, since many of them start with a tiny grain of truth (ie vinegar can kill cancer cells in a petri dish), and then take it to the realm of pseudoscience (ie drinking vinegar will cure cancer).


10 ways to spot what NOT to share on Facebook

1.  An image with text on it that has no citations or attributions so you can’t track down the source.

2. You Google a snippet of the text and the first hit is Snopes.

3.  It sounds too good to be true, i.e. the stuff in your pantry will cure anything that might be wrong with you.

4.  You’d be embarrassed to tell your doctor you tried it based on a Facebook post.

5. It implies that any/all scientists, doctors, medical professionals are complicit in a high-reaching, broad-ranging, multi-national, corporate-government conspiracy to make money by hiding the truth.

6. The source is Age of Autism, Natural News, Underground Health, etc.

7. It’s an advertisement for some money-making scheme (diet solution, natural remedies website, etc).

8. It contains spelling errors.

9.  You ask yourself, “That can’t possibly be true, can it?”

10. It includes the admonition to “Share if you care,” “MUST Share,” or otherwise encourages you to spread the word.


Filed under Scientist

Stuff we eat is banned in other countries! Freak out!!!

Have you seen this article floating around the internets?

80% of Pre-Packaged Foods in America Are Banned in Other Countries from Babble.com/Shine Food

Oh my God?!  How could this be?

The article is a laundry list of food additives/components that are linked to another laundry list of vague detrimental health effects.  For example: “linked to allergies, ADHD, and cancer in animals” or “known cancer-causing agent.”

The only “citation” (consider those sarcastic air quotes) is a book this “article” seems to be a marketing tool to promote.  (And if you check out the book on Amazon, it’s full of helpful pseudoscientific hints like “Capsaicin, found in cayenne, has thermogenic properties that increase you blood flow and metabolism.”  BS.)  That was a major red flag on the “How to recognize pseudoscience check list“- so my skepticism kicked it up a notch.

Now, I have a full time job, so I can’t debunk each compound mentioned, so I’ll just focus on the one closest to my heart, or perhaps I should say, my gastro-intestinal tract:  Brominated Vegetable Oil, supposedly found in my favorite soft drink, Fresca, which is “banned in more than 100 countries ‘because it has been linked to basically every form of thyroid dieases-from cancer to autoimmune diseases-known to man.'” (Source)

I turned my attention to PudMed, for reliable, peer-reviewed, primary literature for some actual evidence.  I found two studies with some hard data, albeit from animal models, and one that estimated how much BVO was actually in soft drinks.

First up- so how much BVO are the rats in these studies eating? (keep in mind, animal studies are a FAR cry from actual health impacts in actual humans!)

This study by Lawrence et al published in Lipids just looked at accumulations of metabolic byproducts of BVOs in the liver, heart and fat tissue of rats.  They fed the rats 0.24g/kg of body weight per day of brominated olive oil or brominated sesame oil and found the corresponding byproducts in those tissues.  Now, for perspective- if a person were to eat 0.24g of BVO per kilogram of body weight, just how much would that be?

If the average US adult male weighs 185lbs, he would have to eat 20.16g of BVOs. The average women, at 155lbs would have to eat 16.8 grams.

Vorhees et al published a study in Teratology way back in 1983 where they fed rats BVOs in ranges of 0 to 2% if their diet.  They did find significant health effects- including weight loss, sterility, and behavioral impairments at the various doses.  Just how much BVOs would humans have to consume if they ate BVOs as 2% of their diet.  Well, if the average American consumes about 2 tons of food per year (source), one would have to eat about 1.6 ounces (or 45.4g) or BVOs per day.

So how much BVO is in my favorite soft drink?  I found an estimate from Yousef et al here. They estimated that “several commercial soft drinks were found to contain BVO in a range 1.8-14.52mg/L.”

This begs the question- how much soda would a person actually have to drink to get near the doses used in the animal studies?

Based on my previous calculations and Yousef et al’s range, the average man would have to drink between 1,379 and 11,200 LITERS OF SODA PER DAY to replicate the Lawrence et al study!  That’s 689 to 5600 2-liter bottles of Fresca IN A SINGLE DAY!  For the average woman, that would be between 1,159 and 9,333 liters.  We are talking on the order of 1000 times a person blood volume of soda.  Even water can kill you if you drink enough of it (see water intoxication aka hyponatremia).

It’s even crazier if you look at the Voorhees et al study, which actually showed health impacts, not just accumulation.  To replicate the doses in the Voorhees study, using Yousef’s measured range of BVO in soda, a person would have to consume between 3,131 and 25,222 liters of soda in a single day!

Am I saying that BVOs are A-OK?  No, I did not find a study to support that, and most studies concluded that given their results, further research was needed to figure out the health impacts in humans.  Further, it is possible that BVOs are more potent in humans or have entirely different health effects than in rats.  BVOs may also be in other foods (although a PubMed search for ‘brominated vegetable oil’ only turns up estimates of BVO amounts in soft drinks as top line hits, see here). The point of this exercise was merely to illustrate how far removed rat studies are from actual, actionable human behaviors.

Remember that a study in rats is never directly applicable to humans- especially when you are talking of massive, biologically irrelevant doses of a compound (nobody is drinking 10,000 liters of soda a day).

So, overall, I wouldn’t waste my money on that book the article is marketing, and I won’t lose sleep over the 5mg of BVOs in the can of Fresca sitting on my desk.

Shame on you Babble and Yahoo Shine for using scare tactics to parade marketing materials as an evidence-based news article.

This kind of schlock has been peddled before by these kinds of sites.  Click to see take downs of:  Fukushima radiation causing infant mortality in the US, deodorant causing breast cancer, adverse effects of pitocin on newborns, anti-obesity campaigns scaring kids into eating disorders, and sleep training/crying it out causing brain damage.

For some level-headed advice on how to spot BS/pseudoscience, see here.


Filed under #scimom, Scientist

A new low

Have you ever watched a nature show on The Discovery Channel or Animal Planet and thought to yourself, “Who in the hell spent their time figuring that out?!”

The one that comes to my mind is an innocuous show I was watching about some lake in Africa and the hippos that lived there.  Seemed like standard nature show fair.  Imagine my utter shock and surprise when the focus switched to one aspect of hippo biology that I could have lived my life without ever knowing.  You could live without it too, so skip the next paragraph if you wish.

Apparently there is a species of leech, Placobdelloides jaegerskioeldi, that breeds in the rectum of a hippo.  Yeah.  The show was replete with close up VIDEOS of the leeches and the hippo hiney hole. It opens a whole can of worms (or leeches?):  Who cares?  How did somebody figure that out?  Why is the name of all that is holy did someone pursue it?  What poor scientist spent his/her field work literally up the butt of hippo?!  Who thought there was something even more gross that leeches mating?  How about leeches mating in a hippo rectum?

I’ve wondered these same things with other research I’ve read about.  Like the impact of sleep deprivation on fruit flies– where some poor grad student had to be similarly sleep deprived to stay awake and shake the container of flies every time they started to nod off before the Sleep Nullifying Apparatus was invented to do it for him/her.

Source: xkcd.com

I’ve also wondered these same things with my own research.  As an undergraduate I studied the role of DNA Polymerase Beta in mismatch repair during meiosis in rats. [See here for an irreverent and hilarious take on Pol Beta and its function.]  Now, in case you forgot from high school biology, meiosis is the special version of cell division that creates gametes (ie sperm and eggs).  To study meiosis, we needed cells in which meiosis was taking place.  Where are gametes made?  Well, eggs are mostly made in fetal ovaries of female rats.  Sperm are made 24/7 in the testes of male rats.  So, if we were given the option of trying to track down meiotic cells it’s much easier to get your hands on rat testicles than fetal/embryonic rat ovaries- trust me.

Thusly, I spent a good portion of my undergrad research time dissecting out rat testicles, mincing them up with scissors, putting them in a very (ironically) phallic looking Waring blender, then further crushing the cells in another (ironically) phallic looking dounce– all in the name of making cell lysates so we could look for proteins that interacted with Pol Beta during mismatch repair.

I certainly raised a lot of eye brows and elicited many disgusted reactions from people when I discussed my research- particularly when on a grad school prospective student weekend a prof who studied spermatogenesis shouted to me loudly at a social function, “Ah yes!  So exciting!  You’re the student working with testicles!”

Things didn’t exactly improve from there.  The summer after college I got a job working at the county health department in their West Nile Virus Monitoring Program.  This means trapping mosquitoes, sorting them with a dissecting microscope, and sending them off to the state lab for testing for West Nile.  This part wasn’t that bad- other than the nasty water we used to attract the mosquitoes (we were only interested in the females, since they’re the ones that bite, and they like to lay their eggs in nasty fetid water- see here) and all the mosquito bites.

The grossest part of the job involved the ‘monitoring’ of the bird population.  The community was encouraged to call the health department to report any dead birds they found, then we’d go and get those dead birds, pack them on ice, and ship them off to the state lab for testing.  I responded to calls from helpful citizens who swiftly bagged the bird they found and conveniently refrigerated it until we could pick it up.  I also responded to calls from people who reported a pile of rotting flesh and maggots that was once a bird as a dead bird.  I also responded to calls from people who were so irrationally terrified of West Nile that they left the dead bird to rot and bake in the sun rather than go near it.  There was also the concerned citizen who hit a Canada goose with his car and reported it to us (Note to caller:  you hit it with your car, it didn’t die from West Nile Virus!).  It was pretty gross.  Some were pretty far gone and so decayed and stinky that we just disposed of them because they couldn’t be tested.

I should mention that I was the only woman on this team with four other men.  When I interviewed for the position the man who would be my manager said, “Are you sure you’ll be OK picking up dead birds?” (which I’m guessing was a concern because I am female and thus averse to ‘yucky stuff’) to which I replied, with a totally straight face, “My last job involved grinding up rat testicles.  I don’t think this will be a problem.”  He was appropriately and humorously silenced by my reply and offered me the job.

As a grad student I did pretty well.  My breast cancer research was relatively innocuous.  No in vivo work.  No dissection.  Standard blood and guts-free in vitro benchwork.

As a post-doc I had to help out with the harvesting rat hepatocytes (liver cells) that involved some surgery, but I was just assisting and didn’t have to get my hands dirty.

I mistakenly thought I’d moved on from the realm of research that makes people ask “Why in the hell would you do that?!  Gross!”

The operative word here being mistakenly.

I think my research is going to take me to a new low this year.  How low?

Hmm…. how should I convey the lowliness of this?  I think two words will sum it up.

Mouse enemas.


Part of my research this year will involve engrafting cells into mouse colons.  How does one get cells into the colon of a mouse?  Basically by giving the mouse an enema of cells.


Seriously not looking forward to this new low.

What about you?  Any ‘lowly’ research projects under your belt?  Any bizarre nature shows that made you feel bad for the researchers?


Filed under Scientist