What cancer statistics actually mean

Genius science writer Ed Yong used to work for a cancer charity, so he's seen how the cancer research sausages get made. In a new post at Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed takes you on a brief tour of the factory, explaining why even good data doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means.

The post is based around a new study that says 16.1% of all cancers worldwide are caused by infections. This statistic is talking about stuff like HPV—viruses and other infections that can prompt mutations in the cells they infect. Sometimes, those mutations propagate and become a tumor.

That statistic tells us that infections play a role in more cancers than most laypeople probably think, Ed says. It gives us an idea of the scale of the problem. But you have to be careful not to read too much into that 16.1%.

The latest paper tells us that 16.1% of cancers are attributable to infections. In 2006, a similar analysis concluded that 17.8% of cancers are attributable to infections. And in 1997, yet another study put the figure at 15.6%. If you didn’t know how the numbers were derived, you might think: Aha! A trend! The number of infection-related cancers was on the rise but then it went down again.

That’s wrong. All these studies relied on slightly different methods and different sets of data. The fact that the numbers vary tells us nothing about whether the problem of infection-related cancers has got ‘better’ or ‘worse’. (In this case, the estimates are actually pretty close, which is reassuring.

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