Johns Hopkins Cancer Hoax: Diagnosing a Meme

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.