More on Cancer, Luck, and Behavioural causes

by Jonathan Sterne on January 4, 2015

A day later, I’ve been pointed to some nice writings but scientists and statisticians. See here:

A few things become clear: 1) the coverage is of the press release, not the actual paper but 2) there are still major problems in the assumptions of the paper.  The “luck” appears to be mostly an artifact of the press release and the abstract, though the analysis remains flawed. The lack of social and environmental analysis is definitely a property of the paper. And of course most of the journalists reporting it are innumerate to boot.

Statsguy has a wonderful critique of the article, but winds up writing about lifestyle as a cause for cancer, and I’m sorry, without environment and social analysis, that’s just bullshit.  Yes, HPV causes cervical cancer and smoking causes cancer, but what causes smoking?  And neither of those things are good explanations for breast or thyroid cancer, whose increasing prevalence appear to result from a combination of changes in diagnostic technology and practice and environmental causes.

So it would be wrong to say cancer in general is “behaviourally” caused. Some cancers are behaviourally caused, though even there, how you could say smoking causes cancer and not also look at policies that promote the tobacco industry around the world, I don’t know. Ditto for the HPV vaccine.  If HPV causes cervical cancer and the HPV vaccine prevents the cancer, then it suggests to me the important behaviour is vaccination, not sexual activity.

There’s a whole layer of moralizing that goes on top of the behaviour talk–which is typical of American (and I’m assuming some other) medical culture. But that will have to be for another post.




Medical Research as Ideology: Cancer is Luck

by Jonathan Sterne on January 3, 2015

A new Johns Hopkins study finds “luck” as a major cause of cancer.

This is a great example of how medical research turns social conditions into inevitability and writes ideology (the order of things is given and unchangeable) as if it were science.

While there is talk of personal responsibility as a possible cause for cancer (“behaviours”), there is no talk of social responsibility (which might have something to do with changes in the environment over the last few generations). The only known cause of thyroid cancer is radiation. Other cancers are well known to be environmentally caused. So if, as the article says, we know cancer is caused by a combination of “luck, environment and heredity,” and the luck is more important than we thought (duh), then the logical conclusion is that if we are concerned about the spread of cancer, we ought to be thinking about the environment.

Sure, I’m all for fatalism as an explanation for why I have cancer and the person who experienced the same conditions doesn’t. But since we know certain cancers –including mine–are greatly increasing in the population overall (at least in the US and Canada, I don’t know worldwide statistics), we might actually want to go looking for explanations and solutions.

2014 in Review

by Jonathan Sterne on December 31, 2014

It’s been a really complicated year–some major highs and lows. We’ve spent the last couple days on unfinished business: seeing Laura Poitras’ gripping CITIZEN FOUR (highly recommended), doing our donations for the year, and it looks like I am actually going to get an article revised that I thought I might not be able to do.

2014’s highs included a semester at Microsoft Research and a month at Folger Shakespeare library, new friends and reconnecting with old ones, lots of opportunities to do original research of both the archival and ethnographic kinds, a really amazing graduate seminar and conference, five PhD students finishing, lots of great trips and talks and meeting new colleagues at distant places, and especially our first trip to Sweden. Also 2014 was the year I performed solo electronic music for the first two times (thank you Boston!), came out as a member of a country band, discovered the joys of modular synthesis, and bought an electric guitar and took a few lessons (I’m terrible but it was fun).  The kittens have been a constant happy obsession since they arrived in August.

Lows included being apart from Carrie for weeks at a time, including when our 19-year old cat Ya-Ya died, and later when, her grandmother passed. My own medical adventures have been a bit of an emotional roller coaster and I’m still digesting it all.  Carrie’s dad’s hospital visit was a bit of a scare and yesterday, I just learned of the passing of one of my best friends from graduate school, Greg Dimitriadis. Mortality is all around.

If I had the energy, I’d write a longer blog post (especially about Greg), but this will do for now.  It’s okay by me if 2015 is a little less eventful.


I got what I wanted, sort of

by Jonathan Sterne on December 18, 2014

So after having three (yes 3) of my doctoral students defend their dissertations Monday and Tuesday, my reward was to spend yesterday and today getting tests and doctoring.  The good news is that they have decided to go back to watchful waiting for now.  I will have another full body scan in three months (this time including brain) and after that, they will probably break it up into various different kinds of scans for different body parts. But I have to say meetings with a medical oncologist are nothing if not sobering.  Right now the disease isn’t doing much of anything.  It might continue to not do much of anything, but once it starts “trying to grow” it can move very fast and go from a slow-growing don’t worry about it cancer, to the standard aggressive, take over your body, lights out kind of cancer.  And I’m now fully in their system, which is quite functional and efficient, but I’d definitely not be at the place I’m obviously at in triage. It means they think it’s serious.

Now more of the good news.  The oncologist said “I’m not impressed by your tumour.”   Music to my ears.  The CT scan report shows my lung nodules are more or less unchanged since July.  The big one was measured a little smaller, but within the realm of human error, so I don’t think the radioactive iodine had any effect.  My thyroglobulin is down (that’s the tumour marker in my blood), which is very good.

They also assigned me a primary care doctor (oh the irony, I now have two and many people in Quebec have none), who specializes in young adult cancer patients.  Because that’s my category.

Thanksgiving update

November 27, 2014

It’s American thanksgiving!  I’m thankful for my wonderful family and friends (some of whom I will see tonight at a potluck), KITTENS and CARRIE, great colleagues and students, as well as for the kindness of strangers. Since I last posted, I got a little information on but the ThyCa people managed to manually add […]

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Well, that didn’t work out as hoped

November 24, 2014

So the radioactive iodine didn’t work.  Of course “didn’t work” is a bit of an abstract concept. You will recall that the possible outcomes ranged from complete annihilation of the metastatic thyroid cancer cells in my lungs to, well, nothing. It definitely didn’t get rid of the cells.  If it slowed or stopped the growth, […]

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Tuesday Dinner / Today Lunch Report

November 20, 2014

Tastebuds are mostly back! Tuesday night I arrived home tired, and didn’t feel like cooking. t took out some left over tabbouleh from the weekend. I ate it and thought “wow, this tastes good.”  When I realized that 3-day old tabbouleh doesn’t usually taste better than newer tabbouleh, I went over to the butter dish, rubbed […]

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