Sunday, March 13, 2011

Guest column: Beware the cancer quack.

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.

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.

Alkaline Diet
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.

Magnet Therapy
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.

Anti-Cancer Psychotherapy
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.
© Copyright 2011 by Samantha Harris. All rights reserved


For more on questionable cancer therapies, try this column from Quackwatch.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to add that belief in these alternative therapies, particularly in positive thinking, is so rampant that it is impossible to get away from it. It leads people to say insensitive and stupid things. You can't just be sick anymore, sooner or later someone is going to suggest that it's "all in your mind" or that you aren't doing enough to cure yourself. It's all a bit blame-the-victim to me, which is the LAST thing someone needs when they are dealing with a serious illness.

I also wonder whether there is a political underpinning to the alternative therapy industry. Perhaps alternative therapies distract people from the discussion about how to create a health care system that is accessible and affordable to everyone in the USA. A copper bracelet costs far less than doctor visits, diagnostic tests, and drug or surgical treatments, and usually the consumer pays for the copper bracelet herself, not the government/taxpayers.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, certainly there is tremendous impetus behind the "it's all in your head" mantra with respect to women and so-called "women's problems." In fact, since women typically (or at least frequently) do not experience heart symptoms the way men do, I'm sure there are any number of women who've been told that their vague feeling of unwellness is "just tension" or even "menopause." Women simply do not get the same level of care as men, or they haven't to this point.

Re the gov't, I wouldn't go so far as to allege an Obamacare conspiracy, but certainly there are very powerful Congressional figures who are in bed with the alt-med camp. I've referenced several of them here on the blog, and in my book as well.

kyra said...

"The danger arises when people believe that these alternative therapies alone represent a cure." Samantha, you hit the nail right on the head.

As someone who previously had a lot of faith in the New Age world, I have seen the damage that can be done by the "Anti-cancer psychotherapy" (or anti-cancer psycho-quackery) that these New Age "teachers" preach about. I remember reading Louise Hay's book You Can Heal Your Life, which said, to be cured, you just have to go back and re-live every horrible moment you ever had (which I think can be incredibly psychologically damaging) and bring them to a better place (which for some people, can be next to impossible). What bothered me the most was that if you had something like AIDs, cancer, diabetes, etc, and did all these processes, when there was no sign of benefit from the work, the person doing these processes would just assume that they must not have done it right or they must have needed to "work" on some other issue. So they could easily spend their lives on a wild psychobabble-goose-chase that will never give them the cure they seek. I am also sure that continuous failure at being successful in curing oneself can make them incredibly frustrated--if not depressed.

Similarly, Caroline Myss (you can tell I've spent too many days at Hay House), has so-called "therapies" that are so complex, incoherent, and contradictory that a person could spend their lives trying to "get them right" or even "understand them" so that they can achieve the alleged cure that Myss' materials promise.

Also, I remember being a part of this sort of victim-blaming mentality that Samantha mentions. If someone got cancer or AIDs, I just knew (based on the teachings I was immersed in) that they had attracted that to themselves and that if they just thought differently, they could change it. This same philosophy had me convinced that it didn't matter if they changed their thinking because they would re-emerge into pure positive energy when they died, so they could suffer and live a horrible life, and I didn't have to worry my pretty little head about it. It truly made me heartless and insensitive towards other people's problems and ailments.

Thank you so much for this post, Samantha.

Anonymous said...

Anon here again. I wasn't thinking of an Obamacare conspiracy. I was thinking in very general terms, that if people see alt therapies as a viable option, they are less likely to take action about not having other treatment options, which would suit some political agendas just fine.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps sometime you can draw attention to the people who push books, etc., claiming that they can cure diabetes.

Cosmic Connie said...

Thank you for publishing this, Steve, and good job, Samantha. Whenever I think of alt-cancer treatments these days I immediately think of Kevin True-dough's b.f.f. Dr. Leonard Coldwell. (You'll see a link to Coldwell's Instinct Based Medicine site on Steve's hucksters hall of shame list (Guru Watch).)

I've probably cited Coldwell here before, but he bears mentioning again, since he's all over the place touting his "cures" for cancer. On his Disclaimer page he writes:

Disclaimer: For over 20 years I have been curing cancer. I have found the one and only remedy, and it is God’s/Nature’s Cure. You are created to be healthy, happy and successful. You are not supposed to suffer for the financial profit of the pharmaceutical industry or medical profession or the power-and money-hungry American Cancer Society and all of their pawns in politics, the media or “self-help groups.” It is my opinion that the main goal of government agencies like the FTC or FDA (they have to legally be dissolved, and fast!), and other organizations is to protect the profits of the pharmaceutical and medical industry. We have to wake up and take charge of our own health! They definitely do not have our best interests in mind or they would never have made laws or regulations stating that only a drug can treat, cure, diagnose or prevent any illness or condition—that is in itself absurd. No drug ever cured or prevented any disease—ever! So they knowingly set us up to suffer, pay and ultimately die. I am telling you that the only one that can prevent or cure any disease is you! (Or God or Nature as based on your personal beliefs.) I have personally experienced, for over 30 years now, that every illness can be cured, but not every patient can be cured since some people subconsciously want to die or are just not willing to do what it takes to be healthy.

There's more, much more to that page; Coldwell thumbs his nose at the FDA, FTC, et al. And at the very end of the disclaimer we are told:
"Dr. Leonard Coldwell does not trade or sell anything in any way shape or form."


Here's the link:

Kyra, it's good to see you here. You and I have read some of the same books. I have my old copy of Louise Hay's "You Can Heal Your Life," and I have "medical intuitive" Carolyn Myss' first two books. Hay's affirmation-based cure list just never rang true for me, even back in my "believer" days. (Apropos of that... (see "Ouisie Lay").) And Myss' work was so convoluted and rooted in New-Wage mumbo-jumbo that I never found it useful.

Regarding the ideas about government involvement with alt-med (which is kind of the opposite of the government-and-health related theories of your Coldwells and True-doughs): All theories of collusion aside, the fact is that more people than ever *are* desperate to find affordable health care. So I think the alt-med movement is really more of a consumer-driven one than something orchestrated by government, but of course I could be wrong. In any case the hucksters are only too willing to oblige.

Finally... let's hear it for keeping SHAMblog going! Steve, you GOTTA keep blogging. Dr. Oz is now touting John "I Talk To Dead People" Edward and implying that psychics who talk to the dead are engaging in a legitimate type of "grief therapy."

kyra said...

Hey Cosmic Connie, good to be here. I actually had read Steve Salerno's book Sham, but hadn't realized there was a blog till I saw the link on your site. Of course, right up my alley. I have to agree. Even when I was into Abe-Hicks, there was clearly something off with Hay's explanations for the causes of disease. Same with Myss. Her processes were just so clearly self-contradictory and border-line insane (and coming from a former New Ager, I think that says a lot).

I have to agree with you on your statement about alternative medicine's appeal. I was just watching Lisa Ling's Our America on faith healing. Two women were talking about how they had turned to faith healing because they could no longer afford chemo for their mother. And a paralyzed man explained that he partly wanted the faith healing because of how expensive it was to be paralyzed. In neither instance did they seem religiously opposed to medicine (as some people are). That really put faith healing in a new perspective for me as I realized that these were people who were willing to go the route of conventional medicine (and in fact, in both cases, had tried), but felt like faith healing was their only option. And in terms of consumer-friendliness, alternative medicine always makes promises that conventional medicine can't (regardless of their inability to deliver on them).

Oh, Dr. Oz, first Reiki and now John Edward...what hath god wrought?

I second your praises for the SHAMblog!

Lena Phoenix said...

The vitamin C theories are even a risk for people who choose conventional cancer treatment. A friend with aggressive cancer was recently told to get intravenous vitamin C to counteract the immunosuppressive effects of the chemo she had finally accepted she needed. Unfortunately, her well meaning advisor was unaware of research suggesting that vitamin C can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy by as much as 50%.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Ms Harris, Steve, and anyone willing to speak out against the snake oil salesmen like Coldwell, Gersen, Bursynski, Mercola, Humble, Simonici, the list goes on seemingly forever. It saddens and enrages me that such scum make a living off people desperate enough to believe them despite a glaring lack of proof, even to the cost of their own lives. I hope one day an "alternative" method does pan out, but we can't have enough of us continuing to speak out against the frauds and quacks, so please continue to do so. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

check into "Rick Simpsom oil"
lotsa subjective testamonials....

Bernie O'Mahony said...

I'd be interested to know where the fraud with Burcynski lies, given that there are video testimonials of people who actually HAVE recovered from their cancers, and I've never personally heard of any scam about him.

As for not-a-doctor Leonard Coldwell - that scam artist needs shutting down permanently!!