The following piece was contributed by Samantha Harris, a young woman who recently earned her bachelor's degree in journalism and communications. She titles it "Problems with Alternative Cancer Therapies." As many of you probably realize, we could write a book on that topic alone, but I think Samantha's piece provides a nice overview and is in "the SHAMblog spirit."
With that, I give the floor to Ms. Harris:
Unfortunately, wherever there are people who are desperate and looking for answers, there will be others who swoop in to take advantage of them. This phenomenon is seen commonly with cancer patients.© Copyright 2011 by Samantha Harris. All rights reserved
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Though most cancers are treatable, the prognosis for some types is dire indeed: mesothelioma life expectancy, for example, averages less than a year from diagnosis. The fear of cancer is such that people too often seek answers in strange places. Some of these places may be hazardous in their own right, especially for patients whose cancers can be successfully treated through standard means. Following are a few common alternative cancer therapies–and the reasons they don’t work.
Vitamin C Megadose
This treatment, in which patients are injected with large amounts of vitamin C, was thought promising after a study published in 1976 appeared to show that such dosing increased the longevity of cancer victims. However, problems were found with the study's methodology, and further research has not been able to replicate the 1976 results.
This school of thought insists that lowering the body's pH will pay a variety of health dividends, including the death of cancer cells. Again, this treatment has a very slim basis in scientific fact: In a test tube, cancer cells do grow slightly faster in an acidic environment. However, the body is an extremely complex system, and it's impossible to simply alter one aspect and expect to obtain one specific, isolated result.
Here, the potential downside is clearer than with Vitamin C: The body works hard to maintain a constant pH, and attempting to tweak it with an extreme diet can result in the depletion of important nutrients.
There is simply no science behind the notion that magnets offer any health benefits, let alone have the ability to cure cancer. In a biophysical sense, the most plausible claim about magnets is that they improve blood flow or tissue oxygenation–although neither effect has ever been observed in a scientific, properly controlled setting. For one thing, there are problems creating double-blind tests, since patients can often tell whether the ring (or other device) they are wearing is magnetic. In any case, only non-specific placebo effects have been reported.
Sadly, magnet therapy is big business, pulling in $1 billion worldwide and $300 million in America alone.
There is no question that being diagnosed with a terminal illness greatly increases the risk of depression and anxiety disorders; it follows that psychological therapy can help the patient deal with these disorders. However, self-help gurus including Bernie Siegel and Deepak Chopra have attempted to advance the notion that there is a “cancer personality,” rife with resentment or grief, that can worsen life expectancy or even cause cancer in the first place. They contend that psychotherapy can help remove these negative emotions, allowing the patient to overcome his or her disease.
There is no scientific evidence to that effect. Moreover, these claims create another form of victim blaming, implying that if the patient fails to recover, it's because he or she didn't try hard enough. [ED. NOTE: Barbara Ehrenreich has written persuasively of this syndrome. Try here and here.] Maintaining a positive attitude and healthy social connections has been shown to be of some help in dealing with illness, but that's a far cry from claiming that one can simply wish cancer away.
Make no mistake, there are alternative ("complementary") therapies that, when used alongside standard cancer treatment, can help reduce the unpleasantness of symptoms and side effects. The danger arises when people believe that these alternative therapies alone represent a cure. Fatal cancers will not simply disappear after a patient eliminates a certain food from his or her diet or talks with a therapist. Although medical science may not have all the answers, it does offer the most comprehensive and reliable information on human health available.
For more on questionable cancer therapies, try this column from Quackwatch.