Cell Phones, Brain Tumors and mothers

My iPhone makes my ear burn whenever I speak on it for more than ten minutes. The reality is that I’m not a phone person. Of course, I use my cell phone with the same obsessive compulsive behavior I reserve for checking my Facebook messages, but the truth is that I really don’t like to talk on my phone for more than ten minutes at a time. Unless of course I’m on the phone with my mother, and in that case, my ear is probably burning because she’s been yelling in it for over a half an hour. I basically use my iPhone for texting and Internet access.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Siddhartha Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of medical oncology at Columbia University, gave a timeline of certain carcinogens and their relationship with certain cancers. For example, smoking and lung cancer. Researchers identified smoking as a cause of cancer through careful clinical studies in the 1950s and 1960s.

“To ask whether cellphones increase the risk of brain cancer, then, we might begin by turning to this question: Has the age-adjusted incidence of brain cancer increased in the recent past?

The answer is no. Brain cancer is rare: only about 7 cases are diagnosed per 100,000 men and women in America per year, and a striking increase, following the introduction of a potent carcinogen, should be evident. From 1990 to 2002 — the 12-year period during which cellphone users grew to 135 million from 4 million — the age-adjusted incidence rate for overall brain cancer remained nearly flat. If anything, it decreased slightly, from 7 cases for every 100,000 persons to 6.5 cases (the reasons for the decrease are unknown).

In 2010, a larger study updated these results, examining trends between 1992 and 2006. Once again, there was no increase in overall incidence in brain cancer. But if you subdivided the population into groups, an unusual pattern emerged: in females ages 20 to 29 (but not in males) the age-adjusted risk of cancer in the front of the brain grew slightly, from 2.5 cases per 100,000 to 2.6. These cancers appear in the frontal lobe — a knuckle-shaped area immediately behind the forehead and the eye. It is difficult to imagine that cellphones caused these frontal-lobe tumors: how, or why, would a phone’s toxicity have skipped over the area nearest to it and caused a tumor in a distant site?”

Most epidemiologists and biologists agree that tissue-skipping is not plausible, and most do not believe that frontal lobe tumors are the result of cellular phones.

Like most people, I often worry that I have a brain tumor especially since my maternal grandmother died of a brain tumor in the 1960’s. Of course she did not own a cell phone. Every common symptom that could be attributable to stress like, headaches, fatigue, blurry vision or even indigestion, leads me to a definitive diagnosis of brain tumor but only in myself. Of course when any patient comes into my office, I reassure vehemently that the likelihood of having a brain tumor is very low. So why can’t I talk myself out of it? I suppose I’m like everyone else. We assume the worst and expect the inevitable.

This mother’s day my sister and I are taking my mother out to dinner. No cell phones allowed. Researchers say that the lag time for the development of brain tumors from cell phones is estimated to take between 50 and 70 years. I should only hope I have my mother around for that much time.

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One Comment

  1. Charles
    Posted May 17, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Thank God your mother yells. (Now I understand why you call me up at work and yell at me about my health issues!!!) My mom’s the passive-aggressive type. (“I’m only your mother, but….)


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