Cancer Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

I’m away from regular blogging for a couple of weeks, and what do I find?

I’m away from regular blogging for a couple of weeks, and what do I find when I finally get back into the swing of things?

Dangerous cancer quackery published on Mike Adams’ Newstarget site, that’s what.

I know, I know. I shouldn’t be surprised, and I’m not. It’s all par for the course for Newstarget, where evidence-based medicine is viewed as nothing but a conspiracy of big pharma, evil scientific doctors, and the FDA to poison patients against their will. Truly, Mike Adams has decided to go head-to-head with and Dr. Mercola for the title of most ridiculous website ostensibly about medicine. (If Mike Adams keeps it up, soon NewsTarget will look like Life Technology!) Of course, all three are really about promoting non-evidence-based medicine over evidence-based medicine and castigating conventional medicine and any regulatory bodies that try to prevent the selling of unproven and/or ineffective woo and thus interfere unduly with their “freedom” to separate the credulous from their money.

As bad as NewsTarget was three weeks ago, before I left, it’s taken a noticeable step downhill in the interim, a deterioration due to a group of “Citizen Journalists” whom Adams invited to submit articles to NewsTarget for Google AdSense revenue brought in by the page views. (I wonder if Adams would accept one of my articles for publication.) Last night, I came across a doozy of an article submitted by these “citizen journalists,” in this case by one herbalist named Leslee Dru Browning, entitled For Successful Healing, Cancer Must Be Treated as a Multi-System Disease.

As a cancer surgeon, I think I definitely lost a point or two of IQ reading this article.

Naturally, as with many altie articles, it starts out with a horrific description of “conventional” treatments for cancer:

You have just been diagnosed with cancer. Your oncologist is pushing you to begin chemotherapy immediately. You know that chemotherapy will make you sick, your hair fall out and leave you completely debilitated and dependent on someone to care for you. You will suffer severe side-effects that may leave your nervous system damaged, weaken your bones or damage your heart. You also realize that chances are your cancer will return after months of grueling treatments. You think maybe you would like to try alternative medicine but your oncologist is against it and you know of others who tried that route and died. What you may not know is this: Cancer can be healed naturally, and is done so every day, but it takes more than a multivitamin, a few supplements and a daily bowl of blueberries to accomplish complete healing.

Ah, yes, the requisite terrifying description of the horrors of cancer treatment. Of course, these days for many cancers the treatment is nowhere near as horrible as the above would lead you to agree. However, for some cancers, sadly, the treatment still is very hard to endure and has risks of serious complications. From the evidence, we know that these treatments, depending on the tumor, can either cure the cancer, stave off death from cancer by varying amounts of time, or, in the case of incurable cancer, palliate symptoms. Alties like Browning seem to think that oncologists are insensitive to the side effects of the treatment that they prescribe. They also seem to miss the fact that, if we could come up with less toxic regimens that have the same efficacy, we most certainly would. Indeed, doing just that is a major focus of current research in oncology, and we have made considerable progress, as is evident if one compares many of the regimens from 20 or 30 years ago to what we use now. I will give her credit for one thing though, at least she realizes that it will take “more” than a few supplements and some blueberries to cure cancer. I suppose this is her idea of how to show that she is “reasonable” and not making overblown claims for what her woo can do.

Whenever I hear an herbalist or other alternative medicine practitioner claim that “cancer can be healed naturally, and is done so every day,” a question immediately comes to mind: Just where are all these cancer survivors who healed their cancer “naturally”? Really. If people are doing this every day, presumably there should be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of such cancer survivors who eschewed surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation in favor of the sorts of therapies that Browning advocates. A second question comes to mind: If these therapies are as miraculously effective as their advocates like to claim, then it wouldn’t take a very large randomized clinical trial at all to demonstrate their efficacy. Indeed, if they can cure people from 100% fatal diseases at a high rate, then it wouldn’t even take a randomized clinical trial to demonstrate the potency of their methods. So where are those trials? Why aren’t they in the literature? I can’t find them.

I know, I know. “Healers” like Ms. Browning are too busy “healing” people to bother with such petty concerns as detailed documentation of their cases, treatments, and responses to therapy or to do a clinical study. Besides, Big Pharma is keeping them down because “they” don’t want you to know about these “natural cures.” Just ask Mike Adams.

What I don’t understand is how someone like Ms. Browning expects to be taken seriously when her “understanding” of the causes of cancer harkens back to the days of bleeding and leeches, with a more modern misconception of unspecified “toxins” as the cause of all disease tacked on to this ancient mumbo-jumbo:

As an herbalist who has spent many years helping cancer patients heal themselves I have come to the conclusion, like many herbalists before me, that cancer is a result of what I call ‘poor blood’ – by poor I mean the blood is not in optimal condition. Since the blood circulates through every organ in the body and through every cell, it only makes sense that toxins in the blood contaminate the entire body. Blood becomes less than optimal when it is not nourished properly. Without proper nourishment to the blood the body will not survive. It may survive for awhile, even years, but ultimately, the body will suffer from starvation to organs which ultimately causes illness with cancer often resulting as the eventual killer. Therefore, the fundamental goal in curing cancer is not only to restore the blood but to also treat the lymph glands, kidneys, liver, bowel, and bones by nourishment found in herbs. Herbs are effective in healing the body because they are modulators and understand the intricacy of the body’s innate healing capabilities. Their role is to enhance and direct the body’s various systems to function optimally thereby restoring health without doing harm.

Herbs “understand the intricacies of the body’s innate healing capabilities”? I never realized that herbs possess such intelligence! As for the cause of cancer being the blood not being in “optimal condition,” let’s examine the implications of that statement. What, specifically, is “optimal” condition for the blood? How do we determine if a person’s blood is in “optimal” condition? Browning doesn’t say. She does, however, have a ludicrously complicated regimen of at least four different tonics requiring at least 40 different herbs total (around 10 per concoction) to make. Apparently, Browning advocates combining them into some sort of liquid potion. By comparison, many conventional medicines appear to constitute a less onerous regimen than this. I suppose that this is also her way of recognizing that cancer is a complex and difficult disease to treat; it’s just unfortunate that there’s no evidence that her regimen does anything to “heal cancer naturally.”

Not surprisingly, Browning seems to adhere to a common misconception that the waste in our colons accumulates and slowly poisons us, causing all manner of diseases if we do not regularly “cleanse” it:

Now we look to the colon. The purpose of the colon as an eliminative organ is to remove waste material by mass muscular contraction called peristalsis. In my experience I have found that nearly 75% of cancer patients have suffered from some form of chronic constipation during their lives. I consider constipation when the bowels do not move at least once a day. When the bowels do not move daily poisons can accumulate in the colon. Depending on where the poison accumulates in the colon will depend on where cancer develops for there is a point on the colon for every organ and system in the body. Any of these points, if clogged, toxic, or full of old fecal matter, will eventually bring illness to that part of the body the colon signifies. The bowel must be swept clean of all debris. Some people will need a gentle nudge while others require a greater nudge.

Never mind that in the vast majority of cases the very “cleansing agents” used to “cleanse” the colon or liver cause the apparent waste that is touted as evidence of the success of the procedure.

Looking at this particular article, I find just what it is that bothers me about so much of alternative medicine. All too much of it is based on concepts that were developed in prescientific times, hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. This was long before science started to understand the causes of many major diseases and used that knowledge to develop effective treatments. Consequently, we see appeals to “poor blood” and unnamed “toxins” by Browning, to an unspecified (and undetectable) “life force” by Reiki therapists and a wide variety of other alternative medicine practitioners, to the scientifically undemonstrated “memory of water” by homeopathists, and to unmappable “meridians” in acupuncture. These days, however, science can’t be denied, even by the antiscientific. Consequently, these concepts are now tarted up with distortions of real science, such as fallacious appeals to quantum theory or claims that by “zapping” parasites one can cure all cancer, as Hulda Clark likes to do. Some alternative medicine, primarily that based on medicines derived from herbs, may have value because some herbs contain real medicines. However, no combination of herbs that any herbalist, naturopath, or other alternative practitioner has ever advocated has ever been shown to be able to “heal cancer naturally,” unless you count the use of Taxol, which is derived from the bark of the Yew tree.

Wait. Taxol is evil chemotherapy, a tool of the Devil–I mean, Big Pharma. Never mind.

More galling, we as practitioners of scientific medicine are expected to respect these assertions, much as “intelligent design” creationists seem to expect biologists to take them seriously. I’ve always said that I consider the distinction between “alternative” and “conventional” medicine to be a false dichotomy. The true dichotomy is between medicine that has evidence to support its efficacy and safety and medicine that does not, or, worse, that has evidence suggesting that it doesn’t work and isn’t safe. Mike Adam, through his NewsTarget site, has always been an advocate of the latter form of medicine. Now, with the addition of his new “citizen journalists,” it looks as though Adams’ site has just gotten a whole lot kookier. It’s clearly poised to turn the stupid up to 11 and beyond and knock and Dr. Mercola out of the ring in the competition to post the single largest repository of health misinformation on the Internet.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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