Medical research may appear a pantomime at times but all good pantos hold a lesson or two

First his head came into view, followed soon after by his tail…..

On Boxing Day Cancer Research UK issued figures suggesting that almost 600,000 deaths from cancer between 2007 and 2011 could have been prevented by healthier lifestyles. 

Then, on New Year’s Day, we were told that scientists at John Hopkins in University in the USA had done some work showing that most cancers are down to ‘bad luck.’ 

If you remain baffled by the seemingly contradictory messages contained in these reports and the impenetrable analysis provided by others since, then I urge you to read the NHS Choices article covering this whole issue which was posted on Monday.  It should put you straight…for the time being.

There was something about the way these stories shuffled into view one after the other during the festive season that reminded me of a pantomime horse.

It’s not a bad metaphor. For each represents an important perspective on issues of causation, prevention and risk. Two ends of the same body of work.

Sometimes they will be uncoordinated and ungainly in how they come together. Then there will be other times when they become as one as powerfully as the puppetry in the stage production of War Horse. And when they do I imagine it will change beliefs and behaviours in ways that can only be positive for reducing the numbers of deaths from cancer.

But this Christmas it seemed as if a mixture of poor timing, bad PR and ‘black and white’ media reporting had unmasked and split these schools of thought like Damien Hirst might do, and set them cruelly against one another.

Perhaps like all good pantomimes this episode is no more than an allegory of our times. An essential lesson on how the uncertainty of science does not always play well on a public stage; how quickly and easily basic public health messages about the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle can become obscured and mangled until rendered meaningless.

Then what…..



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