“Tiffany Frantz got her first cellphone when she was 16.
She loved that flip phone. Every morning, on her way out the door, she’d slip it into the left cup of her bra. When she was 21, while watching television one night with her parents in their Lancaster, Pennsylvania, living room, she felt a lump the size of a pea in her left breast, just beneath her phone. Tests later showed four cancerous tumors. “How in the world did this happen?” her mother asked.
Dr. John West believes he knows. In 2013, the Southern California breast cancer surgeon and five other doctors wrote in the journal Case Reports in Medicineabout Frantz’s tumors and those of three other young women. Each of them regularly carried a cellphone in her bra. “I am absolutely convinced,” West tellsNewsweek, “that there is a relationship between exposure to cellphones and breast cancer in young women who are frequent users.”
West has no proof, however. His evidence is anecdotal—and though anecdotes can spur a hypothesis, they can’t prove one. For years, scientists have looked for a link between cancer and cellphone use that holds up to scientific rigor, and they’ve come up short. That’s why when West told his theory to a gathering of about 60 breast cancer specialists, they dismissed the connection as mere coincidence. “I’m hoping that someday people will say, ‘Well, we laughed at him, and now he’s vindicated,’” he says.
Just because West can’t prove he’s right doesn’t mean he’s wrong. After some studies suggested an increased risk of one type of brain cancer, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded in 2011 that cellphones are “possibly carcinogenic” and recommended keeping “a close watch for a link between cellphones and cancer risk.” But without conclusive evidence of harm, regulators have held back.
Meanwhile, cellphone use has exploded. In 1986, 681,000 Americans had a cellphone. In 2016, there were 396 million subscriptions to cellphones in the U.S.—more than one for every adult and child. Teenagers, whose developing bodies and brains put them at the most risk, are the most eager adopters. According to a Pew Research Center survey earlier this year, 95 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds said they had access to a smartphone, a 22 percent jump from 2012. A generation has grown up with cellphones—teething on them as toddlers, carrying them through middle school in their jean pockets and even sleeping with them under their pillows. All told, 5 billion people around the world now use a cellphone.
In a few decades, we might know for sure whether or not cellphones cause cancer. In the meantime, we are basically running a large, uncontrolled experiment on ourselves…