New Harvard tool helps fact-check cancer claims

A word cloud illustrating "myth" and "reality" in blue words against white background with silver pen; contrasting phrases include "urban legend," "data, "fake," and "proof"

The internet is full of warnings about things that cause cancer. Watch out for antiperspirants, scented candles, and bras, dubious web sites or sensational posts on social media warn. Steer clear of disposable chopsticks, microwaves, radon gas, and more. Scary or misleading claims are so plentiful that it’s hard to know which ones to take seriously. "We’ve seen that a lot of people have unnecessary fears about things that might cause cancer, or they’re overly cautious about things that aren’t based on science," notes Timothy Rebbeck, a cancer researcher and the Vincent L. Gregory, Jr., Professor of Cancer Prevention at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

To cut through the confusion, Rebbeck and his colleagues have developed a free tool to help.

What is the Cancer FactFinder?

The Cancer FactFinder was developed jointly by experts at the Zhu Family Center for Global Cancer Prevention at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Center for Cancer Equity and Engagement at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. It offers reliable information about whether certain cancer claims are true. "It’s a place to go when you’ve heard something and you’re not sure what to make of it," Rebbeck says.

Log on to Cancer FactFinder and you can:

  • Search cancer claims. Type in a particular term (such as "scented candles") or simply scroll through all of the claims the team has investigated. "We have about 70 right now. We’ll continue to update them and add more over time," Rebbeck says.
  • Learn how claims are fact-checked. The Cancer FactFinder team uses expert opinion from leading scientists and health organizations, as well as scientific evidence from human studies. Note: animal studies are not considered. "It could be that cancer is induced in lab animals by feeding them a particular compound or rubbing it on them. That doesn’t mean it causes cancer in humans," Rebbeck says.
  • Learn who’s on the Cancer FactFinder team. In addition to Rebbeck and his colleagues, there’s a mix of scientific experts and community advocates from groups including
    • BayState Health
    • Boston Cancer Support
    • Boston University
    • Men of Color Health Awareness
    • Silent Spring Institute
    • Yale University.

What can you look up?

Vetted claims on Cancer FactFinder range from A to almost Z — from an acidic diet to wax that’s sprayed onto fruit and vegetables.

Each listing gives you an immediate idea if there’s something to the claim, based on the balance of evidence in humans. A green checkmark means the claim is most likely true. A red X means the claim is probably false. A question mark indicates that there isn’t enough evidence yet to determine if there’s a cancer link. You’ll learn what the science says, how to reduce risk for a particular cancer, and where you can get additional trustworthy information on a topic.

A cancer fact-check in action

Let’s say, for instance, that you plan to join friends on a hike through a park, and you stop by the store for bug spray to ward off mosquitoes and ticks, which you know can cause illnesses like West Nile disease and Lyme disease. As you peruse the options, you remember someone mentioning that bug spray is linked to cancer.

Instead of worrying, you can go to Cancer FactFinder and type in "bug spray." You’ll see a red X signaling that bug spray hasn’t been found to cause cancer in humans. You’ll also see

  • which chemicals have sparked bug spray concerns
  • how to use bug spray properly
  • how to avoid concerns about certain ingredients by using alternative repellents.

Or say you just want to educate yourself about various cancer claims. Remember the ones mentioned so far? Turns out that claims of cancer linked to bras, antiperspirants, disposable chopsticks, microwaves, acidic diets, and wax sprayed on fruits and vegetables are false. Claims of cancer from radon gas and the frequent use of scented candles are true.

The ultimate goal, Rebbeck says, is empowerment.

"We want everyone to start asking questions, learn how to get reliable information, think about what it means for them, and talk to their families and doctors about lifestyle choices. We’re hoping that’s the endpoint of this."

An action plan to fight unhealthy inflammation

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Although inflammation serves a vital role in the body’s defense and repair systems, chronic inflammation can cause more harm than good. And that may make you wonder: what can I do about it?

In fact, there’s a lot you can do. And you may already be doing it. That’s because some of the most important ways to fight inflammation are measures you should be taking routinely.

Let’s take a look at key elements of fighting chronic inflammation: prevention, detection, and treatment.

Six ways to prevent unhealthy inflammation

Six of the most effective ways to ward off inflammation are:

  • Choose a healthy diet. Individual foods have a rather small impact on bodywide inflammation, so no, eating more kale isn’t likely to help much. But making sure you eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and legumes — sometimes called an anti-inflammatory diet — may reduce inflammation and lower risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. Not only can these diets help reduce inflammation on their own, but replacing foods that increase inflammation (such as sugary drinks and highly processed foods) benefits your body, too.
  • Exercise regularly.Physical activity may help counter some types of inflammation through regulation of the immune system. For example, exercise has anti-inflammatory effects on white blood cells and chemical messengers called cytokines.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Because excess fat in cells stimulates bodywide inflammation, avoiding excess weight is an important way to prevent fat-related inflammation. Keeping your weight in check also reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, a condition that itself causes chronic inflammation.
  • Manage stress. Repeatedly triggered stress hormones contribute to chronic inflammation. Yoga, deep breathing, mindfulness practices, and other forms of relaxation can help calm your nervous system.
  • Do not smoke. Toxins inhaled in cigarette smoke trigger inflammation in the airways, damage lung tissue, and increase the risk of lung cancer and other health problems.
  • Try to prevent inflammatory conditions, such as
    • Infection: Take measures to avoid infections that may cause chronic inflammation. HIV, hepatitis C, and COVID-19 are examples. Practicing safer sex, not sharing needles, and getting routine vaccinations are examples of effective preventive measures.
    • Cancer: Get cancer screening on the schedule recommended by your doctors. For example, colonoscopy can detect and remove polyps that could later become cancerous.
    • Allergies: By avoiding triggers of asthma, eczema, or allergic reactions you can reduce the burden of inflammation in your body.

Do you need tests to detect inflammation?

While testing for inflammation is not routinely recommended, it can be helpful in some situations. For example, tests for inflammation can help to diagnose certain conditions (such as temporal arteritis) or monitor how well treatment is controlling an inflammatory condition (such as Crohn’s disease or rheumatoid arthritis).

However, there are no perfect tests for inflammation. And the best way to know if inflammation is present is to have routine medical care. Seeing a primary care physician, reviewing your medical history and any symptoms you have, having a physical examination, and having some basic medical tests are reasonable starting points. Such routine care does not typically include tests for inflammation.

How is inflammation treated?

At first glance, treating unhealthy, chronic inflammation may seem simple: you take anti-inflammatory medications, right? Actually, there’s much more to it than that.

Anti-inflammatory medicines can be helpful to treat an inflammatory condition. And we have numerous FDA-approved options that are widely available — many in inexpensive generic versions. What’s more, these medicines have been around for decades.

  • Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, are the gold standard. These powerful anti-inflammatory medicines can be lifesaving in a variety of conditions, ranging from asthma to allergic reactions.
  • Other anti-inflammatory medicines can also be quite effective for inflammatory conditions. Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin — which may already be in your medicine cabinet — are among the 20 or so nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that come as pills, tablets, liquids taken by mouth, products applied to skin, injections, and even suppositories.

Yet relying on anti-inflammatory medicines alone for chronic inflammation is often not the best choice. That’s because these medicines may need to be taken for long periods of time and often cause unacceptable side effects. It’s far better to seek and treat the cause of inflammation. Taking this approach may cure or contain many types of chronic inflammation. It may also eliminate the need for other anti-inflammatory treatments.

For example, chronic liver inflammation due to hepatitis C infection can lead to liver scarring, cirrhosis, and eventually liver failure. Medicines to reduce inflammation do not solve the problem, aren’t particularly effective, and may cause intolerable side effects. However, treatments available now can cure most cases of chronic hepatitis C. Once completed, there is no need for anti-inflammatory treatment.

Similarly, among people with rheumatoid arthritis, anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen or steroids may be a short-term approach that helps ease symptoms, yet joint damage may progress unabated. Controlling the underlying condition with medicines like methotrexate or etanercept can protect the joints and eliminate the need for other anti-inflammatory drugs.

The bottom line

Even though we know that chronic inflammation is closely linked to a number of chronic diseases, quashing inflammation isn’t the only approach, or the best one, in all cases.

Fortunately, you can take measures to fight or even prevent unhealthy inflammation. Living an “anti-inflammatory life” isn’t always easy. But if you can do it, there’s an added bonus: measures considered to be anti-inflammatory are generally good for your health, with benefits that reach well beyond reducing inflammation.

Primary progressive aphasia involves many losses: Here’s what you need to know

illustration of a woman holding a hand to her forehead, with pixelated squares scattered around her head representing a memory problem

When you think about progressive brain disorders that cause dementia, you usually think of memory problems. But sometimes language problems — also known as aphasia — are the first symptom.

What’s aphasia?

Aphasia is a disorder of language because of injury to the brain. Strokes (when a blood clot blocks off an artery and a part of the brain dies) are the most common cause, although aphasia may also be caused by traumatic brain injuries, brain tumors, encephalitis, and almost anything else that damages the brain, including neurodegenerative diseases.

How neurodegenerative diseases cause aphasia

Neurodegenerative diseases are disorders that slowly and relentlessly damage the brain. After ruling out a brain tumor with an MRI scan, you can usually tell when aphasia is from a neurodegenerative disease, rather than a stroke or other cause, by its time course: Strokes happen within seconds to minutes. Encephalitis presents over hours to days. Neurodegenerative diseases cause symptoms over months to years.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease, but there are other types as well, such as frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Different neurodegenerative diseases damage different parts of the brain and cause different symptoms. When a neurodegenerative disease causes problems with language first and foremost, it is called primary progressive aphasia.

How is primary progressive aphasia diagnosed?

Primary progressive aphasia is generally diagnosed by a cognitive behavioral neurologist and/or a neuropsychologist who specializes in late-life disorders. The evaluation should include a careful history of any language and other problems that are present; a neurological examination; pencil-and-paper testing of thinking, memory, and language; blood tests to rule out vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disorders, infections, and other medical problems; and an MRI scan to look for strokes, tumors, and other abnormalities that can affect the brain’s structure.

The general criteria for primary progressive aphasia include:

  • difficulty with language is the most prominent clinical feature at the onset and initial phases of the neurodegenerative disease
  • these language problems are severe enough to cause impaired day-to-day functioning
  • other disorders that could cause the language problems have been looked for and are not present.

There are three major variants of primary progressive aphasia

Primary progressive aphasia is divided into different variants based on which aspect of language is disrupted.

Logopenic variant primary progressive aphasia causes word-finding difficulties. Individuals with this variant have trouble finding common, everyday words such as table, chair, blue, knee, celery, and honesty. They know what these words mean, however.

Semantic variant primary progressive aphasia causes difficulty in understanding what words mean. When given the word, individuals with this variant may not understand what a table or chair is, which color is blue, where to find their knee, what celery is good for, and what honesty means.

Nonfluent/agrammatic variant primary progressive aphasia causes effortful, halting speech in which individuals know what they want to say but cannot get the words out. When they can get words out, their sentences often have incorrect grammar. Although they know what the individual words mean, they may have trouble understanding a sentence with complex grammar, such as, “The lion was eaten by the tiger.”

Different primary progressive aphasia variants are caused by different diseases

These primary progressive aphasia variants are not diseases themselves. They are symptoms of brain problems. Not sure what I mean? Consider three other symptoms: fever, headache, and chest pain. As you know, each of these symptoms may be caused by different underlying diseases.

The logopenic variant of primary progressive aphasia is usually caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Does that surprise you? What this means is that although Alzheimer’s disease typically begins with memory loss, in some individuals it can start with trouble finding words. Memory problems typically begin a few years later. (Why do we call it Alzheimer’s disease if it doesn’t start with memory problems? Because Alzheimer’s disease is defined by the pathology that we see under the microscope when we examine the brain tissue, not by its symptoms.)

The semantic variant of primary progressive aphasia is usually caused by frontotemporal lobar degeneration, and specifically by accumulation of TDP-43. TDP-43 is an abnormal protein that accumulates in — and ultimately kills — brain cells.

The nonfluent/agrammatic variant of primary progressive is also usually caused by frontotemporal lobar degeneration, but this time it is most often due to tau pathology. Tau accumulation leads to tangles inside cells that damage and then destroy them.

Can primary progressive aphasia be treated?

The treatments available for primary progressive aphasia are generally strategies and systems to help individuals with these disorders communicate better.

  • Thinking of information related to the word they are looking for can sometimes help individuals with logopenic variant primary progressive aphasia. For example, if they are searching for the word lion, thinking of yellow, Africa, big cat, mane, and similar words may help.
  • Using your tone of voice, facial expression, and body language can be helpful to communicate with individuals with semantic variant primary progressive aphasia, as can pantomiming the message you are trying to convey.
  • Using pictures, either on paper or in a tablet-based application, can be helpful to individuals with all variants of primary progressive aphasia.

Unfortunately, there are no cures for primary progressive aphasia, and no medications that have been shown to be effective. Most patients with primary progressive aphasia develop other cognitive problems over time, leading to a more general dementia.

If you suspect that you (or your loved one) may have primary progressive aphasia, start by meeting with your doctor. If your doctor is concerned, they will send you (or your loved one) to the right specialist.

How to break a bad habit

photo of a wooden signpost with two arrows pointing in opposite directions saying old habits and change, with clear blue sky behind

We all have habits we’d like to get rid of, and every night we give ourselves the same pep talk: I’ll go to bed earlier. I will resist that cookie. I will stop biting my nails. And then tomorrow comes, we cave, and feel worse than bad. We feel defeated and guilty because we know better and still can’t resist.

The cycle is understandable, because the brain doesn’t make changes easily. But breaking an unhealthy habit can be done. It takes intent, a little white-knuckling, and some effective behavior modification techniques. But even before that, it helps to understand what’s happening in our brains, with our motivations, and with our self-talk.

We feel rewarded for certain habits

Good or bad habits are routines, and routines, like showering or driving to work, are automatic and make our lives easier. “The brain doesn’t have to think too much,” say Dr. Stephanie Collier, director of education in the division of geriatric psychology at McLean Hospital, and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Bad habits are slightly different, but when we try to break a bad one we create dissonance, and the brain doesn’t like that, says Dr. Luana Marques, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. The limbic system in the brain activates the fight-flight-or-freeze responses, and our reaction is to avoid this “threat” and go back to the old behavior, even though we know it’s not good for us.

Often, habits that don’t benefit us still feel good, since the brain releases dopamine. It does this with anything that helps us as a species to survive, like eating or sex. Avoiding change qualifies as survival, and we get rewarded (albeit temporarily), so we keep reverting every time. “That’s why it’s so hard,” Collier says.

Finding the reason why you want to change

But before you try to change a habit, it’s fundamental to identify why you want to change. When the reason is more personal — you want to be around for your kids; you want to travel more — you have a stronger motivation and a reminder to refer back to during struggles.

After that, you want to figure out your internal and external triggers, and that takes some detective work. When the bad-habit urge hits, ask when, where, and with whom it happens, and how you are feeling, be it sad, lonely, depressed, nervous. It’s a mixing and matching process and different for every person, but if you notice a clue beforehand, you might be able to catch yourself, Collier says.

The next part — and sometimes the harder part — is modifying your behavior. If your weakness is a morning muffin on the way to work, the solution might be to change your route. But environments can’t always be altered, so you want to find a replacement, such as having almonds instead of candy or frozen yogurt in lieu of ice cream. “You don’t have to aim for perfect, but just a little bit healthier,” Collier says.

You also want to avoid the all-or-nothing mindset, which leads to quick burnout, and instead take micro-steps toward your goal, Marques says. If you stay up until midnight but want to be in bed at 10, the reasonable progression is: start with 11:45; the next night 11:30; the next 11:15 … It builds success and minimizes avoiding the new habit.

It also helps to remember that urges follow a cycle. They’re initially intense, then wane, and usually go away in about 20 minutes. Collier suggests to set a timer and focus on “just getting through that.”

In that waiting period, seeking new sensations can provide useful distraction. You can go outside and feel the wind and smell the air. You can do something physical. Collier also likes using hot and cold. In the extreme, it’s submerging your face into a bowl of water, which can slow down your heart rate. But it could also be holding an ice cube or taking a hot shower. “You’re focused on the sensation and not the urge,” she says.

Accept that success isn’t a straight line

As you try to change, there will be bumps and setbacks, which are part of the process of lasting change. The problem is that we’re our own worst critics, and some people view anything except total success as complete failure.

Marques says to try to take a third-person perspective and think about how you’d react to a friend who said that having one bag of chips had ruined their whole diet. You’d be kind and reassuring, not critical, so give yourself the same treatment. A lot of the struggle with self-criticism is not seeing thoughts as facts, but merely thoughts. It takes practice, but it’s the same idea as with meditation. You treat what comes into your head as clouds, acknowledging them and letting them roll on through. “Everyone has distorted thoughts all the time,” Marques says. “It’s what you do with them.”

It also helps to reduce stress and minimize that sense of failure to know that the goal isn’t to make the old habit disappear, because it won’t. You’re just trying to strengthen the new routine so eventually it takes over, and the old habit isn’t even a thought. But it’s a constant process, made easier with self-compassion, because there’s no way to prepare for every situation or be able to predict when and where a trigger might happen.

“You can’t prepare for life,” Collier says. “Life is going to throw things at you.”