Get Updates

Making Sense of Cancer Headlines

FORCE's XRAYS program, funded by the CDC, is a reliable resource for young breast cancer survivors and high-risk women to navigate through breast cancer research related news and information.

XRAYS logo and women

What “The Truth About Cancer” got wrong about BRCA mutations and cancer


This research is relevant for:

Checked Breast cancer survivors

Checked Women under 45

Checked Women over 45

Checked Men with breast cancer

Unhecked Metastatic breast cancer

Unhecked Triple negative breast cancer

Checked Previvors

Checked BRCA mutation carriers

Unhecked ER/PR +

Unhecked Her2+ breast cancer

Checked Special populations: People without a history of breast cancer

Be a part of XRAYS

XRAYS:  Making Sense of Cancer Headlines

A recent web series and related articles contain dangerous misinformation about BRCA mutations and cancer. Everyone is born with two copies of both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which play essential roles in preventing cancer. Individuals born with a change or mutation in one of these genes have a higher lifetime risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers than those without a mutation. Some claim that cancer in people with BRCA mutations can be controlled by 'turning the gene on and off.' This is false and misleading. BRCA mutation carriers are at risk of cancer because they lack a working copy of one of the genes involved in preventing cancer development. Turning a mutated BRCA gene on or off has no effect because once a mutation develops, the gene no longer works.


AT A GLANCE

Recently, a website, thetruthaboutcancer.com, created a 9-part docu-series titled “The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest” (TACGQ). The video states that Angelina Jolie’s decision to remove her breasts was one made out of fear; one commentator states that her decision was “barbaric” and explains why. This video and the arguments it makes have been spreading on social media. After reviewing the videos, we have found that it contains a lot of dangerous misinformation about BRCA mutations and inherited cancer. FORCE XRAYS provides the following point-by-point analysis on "The Truth About Cancer." 

 

TACGQ Video:

The video’s argument centers on epigenetics, which is explained as something that acts on your genes.  The analogy given in the video is, “Your genetics is your software and something has to open it up and read it.” Further discussion states how epigenetics allows you to turn your genes on and off.

Science:

Epigenetics is an active area of biology research that studies how genes can be switched “on” and “off” by external factors. Genes are the instructions used by your body’s cells to make proteins and other molecules that carry out cellular work. Cells have many ways to control genes (or turn them on and off)—it is neither efficient or desirable to have every possible protein made all of the time.  If an external factor prevents the gene from making the protein, one can say the gene is “turned off.” However, this does not apply to deleterious BRCA gene mutations because the issue is not whether or not the gene is “turned on or off.” Rather, the issue is that these mutations are incorrect instructions.

Regardless of epigenetics, mutated genes CANNOT make a proper protein because the instructions to make it are wrong from the start. Turning a mutated BRCA gene “on” or “off” does not affect cancer risk. If a light bulb has no conductive wires, flipping the switch will not turn the light on; conversely, switching it off will not work either—nothing will change because the light bulb remains damaged and lacks the necessary components to function. That is why an epigenetic external factor cannot turn a mutated BRCA gene on and off—the gene is already broken and no external influence can manipulate it so that it works again.

TACGQ Video:

Claiming that doctors would like you to believe that cancer is genetic and arises from a genetic predisposition, the video states, “Let’s say that your body and your genetics is the computer. That is the hardware. The epigenetics is the software. The software runs the hardware. What we need to do is not dwell on the genetics, but the epigenetics.” But this claim is incorrect and untrue.

Science:

All cancer is considered genetic because It is caused by damage to genes that are either inherited or occur with age. When the genes that control cell growth and division are damaged, cells no longer have instructions to control their growth, and these errors sometimes cause the cells to become cancerous.  If you apply the video’s analogy to people with BRCA mutations, the software cannot control the hardware if the hardware is already broken.

TACGQ Video:

The video also says that genes do not control life. It states that you can activate and deactivate genes, and that if you deactivate your genes with a healthy lifestyle, you do not get cancer.

Science:

Our genes do control life. Our environment, including lifestyle, can affect when genes are turned on and off, but ultimately it is the combination of our genetics AND our environment that have ultimate influence. External environmental factors affect our genes, but cannot change a malfunctioning gene into one that functions properly. While it is important to live a healthy lifestyle, that does not automatically deactivate “bad” genes or activate “good ones.”

TACGQ Video:

The video says that our epigenetic influences turn genes on and off, so you don’t have to worry about the genes you inherit from your parents.

Science:

Inherited BRCA mutations are present in every cell of the body and cannot be turned on and off by environmental factors.

TACGQ Video:

The video claims that the way women live their lives will alter their BRCA mutations.

Science:

Drinking alcohol and obesity are risk factors for breast cancer, while exercise is a protective factor, both for people who do and do not have BRCA mutations. Although unhealthy habits may increase risk, healthy habits do not eliminate anyone’s risk of breast cancer. Avoiding alcohol and getting enough exercise does not affect the BRCA mutation itself, and currently, we have no convincing evidence that diet, exercise, or other lifestyle choices will significantly change the cancer risk for a person with a BRCA mutation.  However, healthy lifestyle choices can improve quality of life for cancer survivors and those at high risk for cancer.

TACGQ Video:

The video avoids answering the question about whether BRCA mutations can be inherited, and instead talks about how we can turn genes on and off depending on what we eat and how well we sleep.

Science:

BRCA mutations are inherited. Fathers and mothers who carry a BRCA mutation have a 50 percent chance of passing it along to each of their children.

It is important to note that none of the people who provided information for the video are medical oncologists. Ultimately, “The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest” is full of misleading information that is not grounded in science. This type of misinformation is dangerous, because it may lead high-risk women to drawing incorrect and dangerous conclusions about their ability to prevent cancer through healthy lifestyle alone.

A healthy lifestyle, diet, and exercises are beneficial to everyone—cancer survivors, previvors, and those of average cancer risk.  However, the cancer risk for people who have mutations in BRCA or other genes associated with hereditary cancer is greatly increased. National guidelines outline screening and risk management options.  If you have a mutation, or you are concerned that your cancer or the cancer in your family is hereditary, please discuss your risk management options with your health care provider. 

References

The Truth About Cancer website (note: access to the documentary requires registration). 

Posted 11/10/15

Back to XRAYS Home

Find older XRAYS studies and articles

By keyword search:

By date range:

By quarterly digest:

FORCE:Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered