Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

Cancer has been in the news a lot recently. In the last few days, there have been separate reports in the newspapers about the high cost of some cancer drugs, and the prediction by a national charity that there will be a crisis of unmanageable proportions in the NHS due to the record number of people with cancer. But there were two reports that appeared over the Christmas period that caught my eye.

The First Report

bmj, british medical association, medical journal

BMJ, the weekly journal of the British Medical Association, was first published in 1840 and is one of the world’s oldest general medical journals.

The first was a story in The Independent (31 Dec 14) with the headline ‘Cancer is the best death – so don’t waste billions trying to cure it, says leading doctor’. The story originated from Dr Richard Smith, a former editor of BMJ (previously the British Medical Journal), who had argued that cancer allowed people to say goodbye and prepare for death and was therefore preferable to sudden death, death from organ failure, or ‘the long, slow death from dementia’ adding ‘let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death’.

My initial reaction was to think that whilst having cancer in later life might to some be preferable to developing dementia, what of people who die of cancer much earlier in life: children and young persons, parents with young children, or just someone who happens not to even reached their 40s? What of people who die quite suddenly of cancer, within months rather than years? Another concern was about the drugs and treatments that alleviate the symptoms of cancer rather than cure it? Is it similarly misguided to incur these costs? With the prospect of us all living longer, the increasing cost of healthcare is a big challenge so perhaps Dr Smith was only joining the debate on how far can we fund these costs.

The Second Report 

BBCCancerBadLuckThe second story, on the BBC News website (2 Jan 15), which had the headline ‘Most cancers types just bad luck’, came from American research, unspecified, saying that ‘new research has suggested that most types of cancer are the result of bad luck, rather than an unhealthy lifestyle or genetic factors’.

My first thoughts was to question who had suggested that a large proportion of cancers were related to lifestyle anyway. Of more concern was the notion of ‘bad luck’ as if there was nothing we could do about it. I didn’t think that scientific research recognised bad luck. There is surely a mechanism, a cause, to everything in the natural world even if the processes are beyond the limits of our current knowledge. But perhaps I don’t know enough about random events. Further, I found myself thinking that if lifestyle wasn’t the cause of two-thirds of cancers, that perhaps lifestyle wasn’t relevant either in the treatment or survival of the disease. This would of course be nonsense. Keeping fit through regular exercise or healthy eating is a vital part of managing ill-health, including cancer. And this is so even if our knowledge of exactly what it is in particular foods that makes it a good food or a bad food is imperfectly understood, given the immense difficulty of scientifically trialling particular foods.

I decided to look into the sources of these stories. How accurate was the reporting? Is the science behind the stories much more complicated than how they are presented? Are readers being misled?

Health in the Headlines

But it was not just these stories about cancer. Every newspaper seemed to run at least one quasi-scientific story each day about how to live longer or eat more healthily, or the latest cures for cancer, dementia, heart disease etc. Here are some of the headlines that I found over the last month or so:

‘Keeping cold could keep you thinner, scientists say’ (The Independent 8 Jan 15)

‘Porridge helps to protect against heart disease’ (Daily Express 8 Jan 15)

‘High blood pressure? Eat like a Viking’ (Daily Telegraph 7 Jan 15)

IndependentPorridge‘Porridge could be key to a healthy life, Harvard research finds’ (The Independent 6 Jan 15)

‘The secret of eternal youth: skin-tight Lycra and a bicycle’ (The Independent 6 Jan 15)

‘Could a pill containing Viagra cure illnesses from Ebola to brain cancer, hepatitis to MRSA? (Daily Mail 5 Jan 15)

‘Chips may cause cancer’ (Daily Mail 4 Jan 15)

‘Junk food may not be dangerous for a quarter of people, says scientists’ (Daily Telegraph 2 Jan 15)

‘Scientists crack why red meat is linked with cancer – and sugar may be to blame’ (Daily Mail 30 Dec 14)

‘Lifestyle changes ‘could protect 80,000 from dementia’ (Daily Telegraph 21 Dec 14)

‘Is ibuprofen the key to anti-ageing? Study finds painkiller extends life of flies and worms by equivalent of 12 human years’ (The Independent 19 Dec 14)

‘Tamoxifen could protect women from cancer for 20 years if taken daily (Daily Telegraph 11 Dec 14)

‘Oranges could fight cancer, new study reveals’ (Daily Express 8 Dec 14)

‘Mediterranean diet ‘slows ageing’ – and could even help you live longer’ (The Independent 3 Dec 14)

‘HIV drug ‘dramatically slows spread of prostate cancer’ (Daily Express 1 Dec 14) (more…)


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I recently read a newspaper article that discussed whether human nature, when unchecked, is selfish and greedy, or caring and altruistic. This is not a simple argument. One could say that it depends on the circumstances, or that it depends on culture. People could in one situation be very selfish, but in another quite self-sacrificing in their care for people close to them or who are in need. What is clear is that there are vast numbers of people who devote their time to the service of others who are not close to them, indeed may be unknown to them, where the question of being paid for their effort doesn’t come into it. Perhaps they are in a secure position financially, or perhaps they’re not, but still give what time they have freely. Given the diversity of our lives, there will be many different situations in between. One such group of volunteers are the blood bikers.

blood bikers, nhs, london, ace cafe, north circular road

Here is a group of blood bikers at the Ace Cafe on the North Circular Road in London, a hangout for bikers since 1938. © John Stepney

The blood bikers are a band of motorbike riders who give up their time to courier medical supplies around the country, and in doing so save the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds. Their name might sound a bit ominous, but the mission of this 1,500-strong gang is deadly serious. They are men and women all over Britain who dedicate a few evenings a week to deliver supplies to hospitals across the country as stand-ins for the daytime professionals.  In 2013 they responded to around 35,000 urgent requests from hospitals, delivering everything from blood and platelets to medicine and breast milk, essentially anything you can get on the back of a bike. The volunteers have their own organisation, the Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes (NABB)

The idea of rapid response motorcycle based charity, run by unpaid volunteers, goes back over half a century when a group was formed in London. The NABB was formed in 2010, and has been involved in setting up numerous independent regional groups, of which there are now 25, and the aim is to provide a coast-to-coast service across the UK. The volunteers have to work to professional standards and comply with a variety of regulations. Some of the bikers are retired, most of them are in full-time jobs. Most of all they are from all walks of life. More than a few of the bikers have given three decades of service to the NHS.

During 2013, the bikers responded to requests from 262 hospitals, for urgent transport of whole blood cells, platelets, plasma, serum, surgical instruments,  patient notes, X-rays, human donor milk, and MRI scans. Requests to one of the two or three bikers on duty within a local area, usually come via telephone texts like ‘Urgent blood sample from Peterborough to Birmingham’. It may be that the blood has to go to a specialist testing laboratory with the results required for a patient early the next morning. Within minutes the biker is on their bike, riding off into the night to the pick up point. At the pick-up point a technician on night duty hands over a specially sealed sample box, the biker hands over a receipt, and the package is secured in one of the bike’s panniers. At the destination, a theatre technician in their scrubs may be waiting at reception to take the package. Then they vanish back inside. (more…)

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