Editorial: Canadian Cancer Society too hasty

By Chris Tait

Immediately following the release of a Nebraskan study focused on post-menopausal women, vitamin D supplement sales have seen a hysterical increase, leaving most retailers backordered for higher-dosage bottles.

With the study’s claim of a notable lack of cancer diagnoses in their 1,100-person control group among the portion taking vitamin D3 (cholacalciferol) supplements, it’s easy to understand the Canadian Cancer Society’s excitement: almost immediately after the Creighton University study was published, the society released recommendations for an intake of 1,000 international units–roughly 25 mg–of the vitamin daily after consulting a physician.

Though their excitement was tempered with caution, the quick timing and wide distribution of the news had a marked impact on Canadians. Evidently, the public has taken things to extremes, based on their sudden and overwhelming demand for the supplements despite the inconclusive nature of the findings. An interesting observation has thus been transformed into a country-wide problem.

Whether vitamin D winds up being a miracle cure for cancer or not, the major mishap in this situation was the way the story was handled by both the media and scientific communities. Though some might say they can’t be faulted for misrepresentation of their content, the widespread effect they caused shows something bordering on irresponsibility.

Not to say that journalism and science should aim to avoid affecting the world. Au contraire, that is the purpose for which almost every journalist or scientist lives. Fueling a major change of public habit without all the facts, on the other hand, is obviously sensationalist and unwise. The Cancer Society’s overenthusiastic support for these findings has given them credibility and universality that even the originators hadn’t intended.

Fortunately, the newly recommended adult dose of 1,000 IUs is far from predicted harmful doses (children are not advised to take the supplement), at least in acute cases. The greater issue is not a potential for overdose–though, as history might choose to chime in, it’s bound to happen at some point on either the short or long term–it’s the Cancer Society’s lone and overwhelming support for universal supplementation. Even the U.S.’s equivalent organisation, the National Cancer Institute, announced they would curb their enthusiasm until further studies could be done. With a media track record like that of our neighbours to the south, this seems like a substantial role-reversal, to our discredit.

Even if the discovery leads to breakthrough advances in cancer prevention, it is cheapened by its presentation as a supplement rush or fad. Lumping it in the same category as red meat or Atkins will hardly do it justice, creating more skepticism than it may deserve in the future. If the public is unwilling to act on the discovery because of its premature announcement, this area of study runs the risk of being devalued. After all, what is the point of knowledge if nobody does anything with it?

Not all the blame can be put on the shoulders of the messengers. Surely, the public’s ignorance or disregard of finer points absorb some of the onus. The Canadian Cancer Society should have exercised a little more patience because the way this issue was handled was unwarranted.

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