My last post of 2021 discussed how that had been the year that the old antivaccine tactic of “dumpster diving” in the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database had been mainstreamed by antivaxxers as part of their ongoing efforts to portray COVID-19 vaccines as deadly. I was reminded of this earlier this week, when I learned of the death of Gayle DeLong, PhD. One reason is that Dr. DeLong’s passing reminded me of a phenomenon that has come to dominate bad science about COVID-19, specifically an expert in one discipline unrelated to vaccines and infectious disease thinking herself an “expert” in COVID-19 vaccines.
Unsurprisingly, the antivaxxers at Age of Autism soon published a memorial and eulogy, noting:
After a seven-year struggle with cancer, Gayle DeLong passed away peacefully on January 5, 2022, at home and with her family. She proudly wore the badge of “Warrior Mom”. She worked relentlessly to lift the burdens of autism from her two daughters, Jennifer and Flora, and to help an entire generation of vaccine-injured children. She was not a physician, but she was an expert statistician, and she was able to calculate both the vested interests of pharmaceutical companies and the human toll their products were exacting.
Meanwhile, other antivaxxers were noting DeLong’s passing on Facebook:
I would, of course, dispute these characterizations. DeLong was hardly an “expert statistician,” at least not in medicine, nor did she “deepen our understanding of widespread iatrogenic injury.” Quite the opposite, in fact, which makes me wonder what possible institution of higher learning would accept a thesis that quoted any of DeLong’s awful studies, as I’ve written about several examples dating back to 2011 of how she manipulated and misused statistics over the years to blame vaccines for autism and female infertility. Indeed, part of the reason I decided to write about her was because she was one of the antivaxxers who “pioneered” bad study designs that have proliferated during the pandemic and been used by COVID-19 antivaxxers to blame COVID-19 vaccines for death, infertility, and general destruction.
DeLong was a an associate professor of economics in the Bert W. Wasserman Department of Economics and Finance at the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College/City University of New York, where her areas of expertise were listed as international finance, financial institutions, and regulated industries. The most recent example of her assumption that her training in statistics for economics was translatable to epidemiology was in 2018, when she published an utterly execrable paper that falsely linked HPV vaccines to female infertility, a paper that was ultimately retracted, ironically right as CoVID-19 was making itself known in Wuhan. Of course, blaming vaccines for female infertility is a very old antivaccine trope that has found new life among antivaxxers in the age of COVID-19, with multiple claims that these vaccines cause either miscarriages, premature ovarian insufficiency, or damage to the ovaries leading to infertility. Same as it ever was, and DeLong was right up there “pioneering” this claim.
Another reason why news of DeLong’s death led me to write about her now is that she died of breast cancer. As a surgeon whose professional career has been dedicated to the surgical diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer as well as translational research to improve the care of breast cancer patients, it always saddens me to learn of someone dying of this disease. However, that sadness about DeLong as a human being dying of the disease to whose eradication I’ve devoted my life is tempered by how she had decided to announce that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2014, which was shocking at the time—even to me. What do I mean?
To boil it all down, Gayle DeLong blamed her having developed breast cancer on her daughters’ autism (which she of course blamed on vaccines), publishing an article on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism entitled entitled The Lesser of Two Evils: Breast Cancer and Autism. (Hint: Guess which of the two DeLong considered to be the “lesser of two evils.” Further hint: It wasn’t breast cancer.”) She even coined a term for her breast cancer, “autism-induced breast cancer” (AIBC) to describe it. Unfortunately, her “AIBC” claimed her life early Wednesday morning after nearly eight years, as announced by her daughter on Twitter, who had first announced that her mother had been hospitalized in late December:
Again, because I’m a breast cancer surgeon, I am never happy to see the disease claim someone, even when it is someone who has been as dedicated to spreading antivaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories as Ms. DeLong was. Still, DeLong’s claim that autism (more specifically, the stress of caring for her autistic daughters) caused her breast cancer implies that autism claimed her life, which, if you accept her belief that vaccines caused autism, further implies that vaccines ultimately claimed her life. With that in mind, I understand that the family is grieving, but among all the lionization of Ms. DeLong that we are seeing from antivaxxers, I couldn’t help but wonder how her daughters reconcile their mother’s oft-expressed belief that they were somehow “damaged” by vaccines (to the point that the stress of raising them had caused her to develop breast cancer) with their belief that she had “worked tirelessly for a great future” for her daughters with autism.” Maybe she changed during the eight years since she had blamed her cancer on her daughters’ autism.
To see what I mean, let’s go back and look at DeLong’s essay, The Lesser of Two Evils: Breast Cancer and Autism, in which she clearly stated that autism was not only evil, but not the lesser of two evils.
Don’t believe me? Take a look:
I have autism-induced breast cancer (AIBC). While I am not absolutely certain that the 1.9 centimeter lump that grew in my left breast is the result of the stress of raising two autistic children, all indications point in that direction. There is virtually no cancer in my family, I eat organically, I exercise, I’m a good weight. OK, so I live in the toxic dump known as New Jersey, but that is the only other major risk factor. No, the drop in cortisol levels whenever one kid’s school calls or the other kid has a public “flare up” is enough for the cancer to take root.
I took this opportunity nearly eight years ago to point out that DeLong’s conflation of the two shows that it’s not just autism and vaccines about which she labored under major delusions, but medicine and cancer as well. She was expressing two very common misconceptions about cancer. First, she was assuming that breast cancer must be familial and can’t hit someone with “no cancer” in her family. As I explained at the time, in the case of breast cancer, while it’s true that there is a familial component and that there are specific genes, such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, that, when mutated, result in an enormously elevated lifetime risk of breast cancer compared to women without such mutations, the simple fact is that no more than 10% of breast cancer cases have an identifiable familial or genetic component. That means around 90% of breast cancer cases are what we call “sporadic”; i.e., “we can’t identify a specific cause.” While it is true that there are well-characterized other risk factors for breast cancer, such as age, early menarche, late menopause, nulliparity, and others, the magnitude of the breast cancer risk increase due to these factors is way less than a strong family history or an identified cancer-predisposing mutation in BRCA1.
DeLong’s second misconception, shared by many in the world of alternative medicine, was that “living right” is some sort of silver bullet that should prevent cancer, the implication being that, because she had “lived right” (and had no cancer in her family) it was unfair of the universe to have inflicted breast cancer on her, and there “must be a reason”—or at least another reason or cause for her cancer besides randomness and bad luck. This is also an alternative medicine concept that undergirds every antivaccine conspiracy theory about all the horrible things blamed on vaccines by antivaxxers. Just as breast cancer can’t “just happen” to me, autism, for example, can’t “just happen” to my child! There had to have been a cause, and that cause was vaccines! Yes, the very same thinking that led DeLong to blame “something” for her breast cancer is the same thinking that has sustained the false idea that vaccines cause autism. So if it wasn’t genetic or due to diet, then DeLong’s breast cancer must have been due to “stress” from raising two autistic girls. Never mind that the evidence linking stress as a cause to breast cancer was pretty weak then and isn’t really much better now.
Now here’s where DeLong got really bad:
So, I speak from experience when I say Stage 1 breast cancer has nothing on autism. The differences are vast and significant. Unlike autism, no one is telling me to “celebrate” my cancer. No one is telling me that cancer is “just a different way for cells to grow.” People have told me that we’ve always had cancer, but no one is using that is an excuse for not doing anything about it. No one is blaming me (or my mother) for my cancer. Unlike a person with autism, society does not say my cancer is my fault. Another difference is that in three years, I’ll either be dead or cured. Autism is not tangible, so it neither exists concretely nor definitely leaves the body. Although cancer could do to me what autism did to Avonte Oquendo, the chances of dying from a tumor that I treat properly are small and growing smaller.
I pointed out the fallacy behind DeLong’s claim that in three years she’d be either dead or cured; so I won’t belabor that point other than to give the CliffsNotes version. Certain kinds of breast cancer can recur up to decades later, unfortunately. Even the kinds of breast cancer prone to early recurrence can recur longer than three years after seemingly successful treatment.
Also note how DeLong claimed that “society” says that autism in her children was her fault. That, of course, is far from true; that is, if you look at what medicine says, namely that autism is primarily genetic. In fairness, it is true that there was a discredited hypothesis known as the “refrigerator mother” hypothesis that claimed that autism was caused by a cold and distant mother, but that hypothesis had long ago been discredited by 2014. That’s not what DeLong was likely referring to anyway. It is certainly true that antivaxxers who believe that vaccines cause autism blame themselves for having vaccinated their children, DeLong was clearly equating the antivaccine circles in which she had been traveling to “society” at large. Particularly offensive was her explicit likening of autism to cancer, in which she proclaimed that “no one is telling me that cancer is ‘just a different way for cells to grow.’” This suggested to me at the time that she viewed her autistic children as cancers, or at least their autism as bad as any cancer, hence her resentment at the neurodiversity movement that has sought to destigmatize autism. Even worse, was her referring to the case of Avonte Oquendo. This was a teenage boy with autism who had walked out of his school to go missing whose remains were found months later. In other words, DeLong made the connection between her view of cancer and her view of autism even more explicit: Both to her were killer diseases, but there was a difference. Her cancer is potentially curable.
Finally, DeLong suggested that she was going to treat her cancer with woo:
However, one major similarity exists between breast cancer and autism: the “wisdom” of the experts. The standard of care for cancer includes popping this sucker out of my breast, and I’m fine with that. However, I’m more than a bit uneasy about the radiation treatment that the surgeon has recommended post-op. Taking a sledge hammer to my breast may indeed kill the cancer, but what about the organ that lies directly under my breast, my heart? If 10 or 20 years from now I develop a heart condition – which is also unheard of in my family – would it be the result of the radiation or just bad stuff happening to good people? The cancer experts don’t care; after all, the cancer didn’t return! Except that sometimes (often?) cancer does return, perhaps because radiation can cause cancer? And don’t get me started about chemo! I didn’t question the established wisdom concerning vaccines, and my kids have autism. I won’t repeat that mistake. I’ll look for alternatives, weigh the options, and determine the best path for me. Amazing how a little pain in the breast can turn one into a huge pain in the derrière.
Again, as I pointed out at the time, radiation oncologists actually do care very much about toxicity to the heart from radiation therapy that catches part of the cardiac muscle and have long been working on ways to minimize that toxicity. More interesting to me is the common theme between her thinking about autism and cancer, namely that conventional medicine and science were wrong. To her medicine had been “wrong” about vaccines and autism, and as a result her daughters were autistic because she had vaccinated them. This distrust of medicine was threatening to carry over to her treatment of her breast cancer, leading me to speculate that I might have been witnessing the beginning of another alternative cancer treatment testimonial and to hope that she didn’t become this kind of “testimonial.”
I was curious how DeLong had treated her cancer, but was unable to find much about it. If I had to guess, I’d guess that she likely did undergo surgery, at least, but probably eschewed any sort of local or systemic adjuvant therapy, like radiation, chemotherapy, or estrogen-blocking therapy, but I really don’t know. It’s possible that she was persuaded to do everything that her doctors recommended and still relapsed. It happens. As I always tell my patients with stage I breast cancer, their odds of surviving their cancer are excellent, but not 100%. If the expected survival rate of a given cancer at a given stage is 95%, that still means that one out of twenty patients will ultimately succumb to their disease, and if you happen to be one of those unlucky patients it’s 100% to you. In any event, if you look at the comments after DeLong’s AoA article, you’ll see all sorts of believers in cancer quackery suggesting treatments to her, including laetrile, Burt Birkson’s LDN/ALA infusions, bleach (a.k.a. Miracle Mineral Solution), turpentine, orgonite, the “zapper,” and others.
I’ll conclude by going through DeLong’s history a bit, starting with the very first time that I encountered her, way back in 2011. At that time DeLong came to my attention through a very bad study that she published trying to link vaccines to autism. The key problem with that study was the ecological fallacy, in which she assumed that group-level correlations translated to correlations in individuals in the population groups studied, but she also ignored major potential confounders. From there, she moved on to another common theme among antivaxxers, the “pharma shill gambit,” in which she used deceptive arguments to suggest unreconcilable “conflicts of interest” in vaccine safety research. She then continued, publishing a truly incompetent study that blamed female infertility on HPV vaccines. It’s a very old idea that vaccines “sterilize our girls.” Unfortunately, this idea has been repeatedly resurrected in COVID-19-era claims that COVID vaccines cause miscarriages and infertility, claims that began as soon as the vaccines were distributed under an emergency use authorization (EUA) and continue to this day.
As I remember Gayle DeLong and say RIP, even as I rail against the disease that finally claimed her, I still can’t help but remember that she spent the last 10-15 years promoting antivaccine misinformation, in particular one flavor of misinformation blaming vaccines for infertility that has become prominent among antivaxxers over COVID-19 vaccines. She didn’t deserve breast cancer or deserve to die of it, but her death from it doesn’t erase her history of misinformation about vaccines, no matter how much antivaxxers try to portray her as a hero.