Put down that cell phone, lest you end up with a brain tumor.
So says the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency within the World Health Organization (WHO), which just published a report that cell phones are a “possible” carcinogen. The 31 international scientists involved in this research have concluded that excessive use of cell phones may increase your risk of two types of brain tumors: gliomas, which are malignant, and acoustic neuromas, which are not. (Malignant or not, a brain tumor is something you’d rather not have.)
This news, of course, made headlines in newspapers and on broadcasts around the world. After all, the IARC estimates that there are 5 billion cell phones in use globally, and many of us are implicated in that number. According to the Huffington Post, the declaration about cell phones puts these devices in the same category as coffee, pickled vegetables and talcum powder, all of which are designated “possible” carcinogens.
Just to clarify, the WHO designates three levels when researching substances related to cancer: possible, probable, and known. Like coffee and those pickles, cell phones possibly cause cancer, while chemicals used by hairdressers and barbers probably do, and alcohol, tanning beds, and hormone replacement therapy are definitely known to cause cancer.
So what are we to make of the pronouncement about cell phones?
If the conclusion is so indefinite, did the news really deserve the headlines it garnered?
As with much of the news related to cancer, breast or otherwise, the answer is complex. Maybe cell phones do cause cancer, maybe they don’t. To solve the complexity, there needs to be more research and studies of longer term. Until such studies are concluded, the truth is anyone’s guess, and the volumes of discussion that have taken place just since the announcement a week ago point out the difficulty in coming to any easy conclusions.
Given the numbers of substances and factors that might lead to cancer, perhaps the best we can do is pick which evils to avoid. Giving up cigarettes seems obvious, and maybe you can forego your morning cup of joe. But even picking among the evils is hard when you consider that Tamoxifen — the prominent drug taken by women with estrogen-positive breast cancer to prevent recurrence — is also a known carcinogen. And one of the risk factors for breast cancer that has not yet been widely recognized is dense breast tissue, which is not something you can choose to avoid.
What’s an enlightened person to do?
The best I can manage is to keep my eye on the research that addresses my specific variety of cancer and cancer research in general to follow the studies and see their results (more on that in the next post).
In the meantime, I’ll step away from the cell phone.