Johns Hopkins Cancer Hoax: Diagnosing a Meme

John Hopkins Cancer Hoax

Johns Hopkins Hospital

My Facebook stream started to fill up with the same picture posted over and over again: a meme from John Hopkins about eating well and cancer. The post had several claims about cancer and how eating a vegetarian or vegan diet could all but cure cancer. It sounded amazing ... problem is, it's a hoax. They didn't even spell the name of the hospital right; it's Johns, not John. As a result of the meme going viral, the folks at Johns Hopkins responded with a point-by-point rebuttal of the hoax. They took this as an opportunity to educate the public about Johns Hopkins' own cancer research and some of the vagaries of cancer. I was fascinated! It was such a great read. I've been reading about cancer and diet for years. It started with, of all things, former Battlestar Galactica actor Dirk Benedict and his macrobiotic journey as he claimed to have cured himself of prostate cancer in his book "Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy" (Amazon link). This was recommended to me by a Feng Shui healer I met at a workshop when my Dad first got diagnosed with prostate cancer. I was grabbing anything at the time, plausible or not, to see if there were any nuggets of information I could find to help my Dad. Here's the thing ... my Dad went on a super-healthy diet and exercise program and the prostate cancer is no longer detectable in his body.  He focused on daily walks and a plant-based diet and it appears to have worked. It surprised his doctors enough that they had him up in Boston and grilled him about his lifestyle choices. (He's retired down in Florida, but travels to Massachusetts regularly for medical care.)  Maybe my Dad is "Patient A" in a scholarly paper somewhere, who knows. By the way, just to be clear, plant-based doesn't mean plant-exclusive. My Dad has a bit of meat and fish, but he keeps the portion sizes small. So because of my Dad, the false meme had some validity to me as I read through it. Hunh, I wondered, should I contemplate being a vegetarian again?

Mucus and Cancer

But here's what I particularly love about the Johns Hopkins rebuttal. They looked at the research claims in each point of the meme ... a lot of it does have some validity. This is always the tricky thing. A layperson's interpretation of any real science is usually close, but not quite accurate. For instance, the meme talks about mucus and cancer. Some types of cancer do create mucus, so the meme suggested eliminating dairy as that can create mucus too. Well, according to Hopkins, the cancer mucus isn't remotely the same as digestive mucus, and one doesn't affect the other. See?  Well intentioned, but inaccurate.

Healthy Cancer Diet

Here is one great bit of info from the post that I want to share. What is recommended for diet and activity if you do have cancer.  I'm quoting here ...
  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
  3. Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar or low in fiber or high in fat).
  4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes such as beans.
  5. Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork, and lamb) and avoid processed meats.
  6. If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to two for men and one for women a day.
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium).
  8. Don't use supplements to protect against cancer.
So far this is what the science says to do. This is what numerous studies with large cohorts suggest is the best course of action. Not what a former TV star or my Dad did to get healthier. If you have cancer and want to give yourself the best shot of recovery, the above eight bullet points should be your starting point. Please note number 8 ... not what you'll be hearing at your local vitamin store.

The Danger of This Hoax

So is there really any harm here? The meme is suggesting a very healthy lifestyle and that can't be a bad thing, right? Well what if you decided to walk away from traditional treatment methods and just go vegan and start meditating? Would that cure your cancer? How about you ask Steve Jobs that question, that's what he did ... oh right, he's dead. My Dad (and Dirk Benedict) had a slow-moving prostate cancer that the doctors could keep an eye on and swoop in and cut out if needed. My Dad was under doctors' care and tried healthy living to see if it would have an impact. He believes it did. He believes he got rid of the cancer entirely through a healthy lifestyle. But my Dad is a study cohort of one, and while it's amazing and I'm glad it's gone, it doesn't actually prove anything. So what do you think?  Did you see the "John Hopkins" Cancer Hoax meme go by? Did you wonder about its accuracy? Did you think about a loved one you know who is battling cancer now and wonder if you should email it to them?  I'd love your comments on this. Cheers, Lisa    

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.


5 Responses to Johns Hopkins Cancer Hoax: Diagnosing a Meme

  1. evilcyber February 25, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    The internet is great, isn’t it? Mankind never had this much information available at (literally) its finger tips. But then again, while it accelerated the spread of valid information, crap is spread just as fast, sometimes even faster. Because it takes seconds to compose a claim and put it out in the wild, but eternities to refute it with reason.

  2. Kate February 28, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    Hi Lisa! What about The Budwig Diet?

  3. Lisa Johnson March 5, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    Hi Kate, I’ve never heard of the Budwig Diet … I’ll have to go check it out. So I definitely wouldn’t have an opinion, but would refer you back to that list above. :-)

    Evilcyber, yes, especially in things like the fitness and health industries. People are desperate for good information and if they see stuff over and over again they assume it’s true because it’s been repeated … when it might be a slightly twisted, not quite accurate, half truth.



  4. TraceyJoy March 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    What on earth is a meme? This reminds me of the Mayo Clinic bacon, grapefruit diet, hotdog, vanilla ice cream diet remember that, lol. Many if not all of the statements on this John Hopkins list are things I’ve been told over the years by natural-path doctors and herbalist. In the 1990’s I was at an herbal company workshop and I swear this list was a handout from that. I think there are some methods that just make sense at least to me and they can’t hurt you to try. Eat your veggies they are good for you. I think acid alkaline blood stream plays a role. If you eat more acidic foods it’s not so good eat more alkaline foods, it’s better. Since I was 12 I’ve been on and off dairy and meat. My body seems to like being off these 2 food groups and I have considerably less asthma issues, not even having to take medicine daily. When I eat meat and dairy for a week in a row I have to use the inhaler much more. Why I can’t explain it at all, it just behooves me not to ingest these foods. I won’t recommend that for everyone but it works for me. Less sinus issues, less mucous issues, better breathing and small weight loss from not eating these foods. I think a plant rich diet is key to helping the body in more ways than we know. Everyone has their own belief system and will go with one or another. I’ll not knock traditional cancer treatments, I’ll not only observe natural treatments. I like a balanced happy medium.

  5. Lisa Johnson March 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    Hi Tracey, a meme is a factoid or funny thing that gets posted over and over and over … so the meme of the day was that darned Johns Hopkins story all over the place. :-)

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