MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Cancer

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“When orthodox medicine has nothing more to offer” is the title of an article by Dr Elizabeth Thompson, a UK medical homeopath. The article was written years ago, but it is still an excellent example for disclosing the dangerously false and deeply unethical reasoning used by many alternative practitioners. The notion that all sorts of disproven treatments like homeopathy are justified when orthodox medicine has nothing more to offer is so very prevalent that I decided to do this post analysing it.

In the following, you see the most relevant sections of Dr Thompson’s original article (in normal print) and my brief comments (in brackets and in bold):

…Some people come when conventional treatments can no longer offer them anything to save their lives. This is a frightening time for them and although the homeopathic approach may not offer a cure at this late stage of their illness (Is she implying that, in some cases, homeopathy can cure cancer?), it can often offer hope of a different kind. (Surely, one does not need homeopathy for giving patients hope). Sometimes it helps people to outlive the prognosis given to them by months or even years. (A prognosis is not a precise time of death; it is based on statistics and therefore depicts a likelihood, not a certainty. Thus patients outlive their prognosis all the time regardless of treatments.) Sometimes it helps them need less (less than what? there is no control group and therefore the statement seems nonsensical) in the way of conventional medicine including pain killers and offers them continuing support despite progressive disease (is she trying to say that in conventional medicine patients with progressive disease do not get continuing support?).

As a doctor working in both conventional and complementary cancer care I have learned the importance of integrating these two perspectives (the integration of unproven therapies into EBM can only render the latter less effective). Ideally the doctor practising homeopathy would work as an integral part of a much wider team which would include family members, nurses, general practitioners, oncologists, surgeons, palliative physicians and other complementary therapists (the concept of a multi-disciplinary team for cancer is one from conventional medicine where it has long been routine). It is disappointing sometimes to see that other healthcare professionals can be unsupportive of a person’s desire to use complementary therapies and for some people the knowledge that the team is not working together can cause doubt and insecurity (for the majority of patients, however, it might be reassuring to know that their oncology-team is evidence-based).

Some patients come at the beginning of their diagnosis wanting to support their bodies with gentler (homeopathic remedies are not gentler, they are ineffective) approaches and help themselves recover from some difficult and powerful treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy (Why are they being told that alternative therapies are effective in achieving these aims when there is no good evidence to show that this is true? Isn’t that unethical?). As well as using homeopathic medicines (no good evidence of effectiveness!!!), the GHH also has experience in using Mistletoe which is given by injection and has been shown to stimulate the group of white cells whose numbers can be depleted during chemotherapy and radiotherapy (also no good evidence that it works clinically!!!).

Other patients come when they have finished most of their treatments but may still not be feeling well despite being given the all clear by their doctors (same again: no good evidence!!!)…

One wonderful aspect of the homeopathic approach is that it can be a very important opportunity to help someone re-evaluate their life and their health (We don’t need to prescribe placebos for that, this aim is better reached by employing a clinical psychologist).

Sometimes hurts in the past have never been healed and sitting with someone as they describe difficult experiences can be itself therapeutic. Combining this therapeutic listening time with substances from nature that gently stimulate the body’s own healing potential (where is the evidence for that claim?) can be an approach that through patient demand and research (what research?) we can demonstrate is really worth offering to many more people…

END OF QUOTE

 

This text shows in an exemplary fashion how desperate patients can be convinced to make dramatically wrong choices. If you read Dr Thompson’s text without my comments, it probably sounds fairly reasonable to many people. I can understand why patients and carers end up thinking that homeopathy or other disproven therapies are reasonable options WHEN ORTHODOX MEDICINE HAS NOTHING MORE TO OFFER.

But the claim of homeopaths and others that mainstream medicine has, in certain cases, nothing more to offer is demonstrably wrong. Supportive and palliative care are established and important parts of conventional medicine. To deny this fact amounts to a lie! The implied scenario where a patient is told by her oncology team: “sorry but we cannot do anything else for you”, does quite simply not exist. The argument is nothing else but a straw-man – and a vicious one at that.

Moreover, the subsequent argument of homeopaths, “as ‘they’ have given you up, we now offer you our effective homeopathic remedies”, is not supported by good evidence. In other words, one lie is added to another. To call this unethical, would be the understatement of the year, I think.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a truly fascinating plant with plenty of therapeutic potential. It belongs to the ginger family, Zingiberaceae and is native to southern Asia. Its main active ingredients are curcumin (diferuloylmethane) and the related compounds, demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin (curcuminoids) which are secondary metabolites. Turmeric  has been used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine and has a variety of pharmacologic properties including antioxidant, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic activities.

In the often weird world of alternative medicine, turmeric is currently being heavily hyped as the new panacea. Take this website, for instance; it promotes turmeric for just about any ailment known to mankind. Here is a short excerpt to give you a flavour (pun intended, turmeric is, of course, a main ingredient in many curries):

It comes at a surprise to a lot of people that herbs can be highly effective, if not more effective, than conventional medications …

To date, turmeric is one of the top researched plants. It was involved in more than 5,600 peer-reviewed and published biomedical studies. In one research project that extended over a five year period, it was found that turmeric could potentially be used in preventive and therapeutic applications. It was also noted that it has 175 beneficial effects for psychological health…

The 14 Medications it Mimics

Or should we say the 14 medications that mimic turmeric, since turmeric has been around much longer than any chemical prescription drug. Here’s a quick look at some of them:

  • Lipitor: This is a cholesterol drug that is used to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress inside of patients suffering from type 2 diabetes. When the curcuminoid component inside of turmeric is properly prepared, it can offer the same effects (according to a study published in 2008).
  • Prozac: This is an antidepressant that has been overused throughout the past decade. In a study published back in 2011, turmeric was shown to offer beneficial effects that helped to reduce depressive behaviors (using animal models).
  • Aspirin: This is a blood thinner and pain relief drug. In a study done in 1986, it was found that turmeric has similar affects, which makes it a candidate for patients that are susceptible to vascular thrombosis and arthritis.
  • Metformin: This is a drug that treats diabetes. It is used to activate AMPK (to increase uptake of glucose) and helps to suppress the liver’s production of glucose. In a study published in 2009, it was found that curcumin was 500 to 100,000 times more effective at activating AMPK ad ACC.
  • Anti-Inflammatory Drugs: This includes medications like ibuprofen, aspirin and dexamethasone, which are designed to reduce inflammation. Again, in 2004, it was proven that curcumin was an effective alternative option to these chemical drugs.
  • Oxaliplatin: This is a chemotherapy drug. A study done in 2007 showed that curcumin is very similar to the drug, acting as an antiproliferative agent in colorectal cell lines.
  • Corticosteroids: This is a steroid medication, which is used to treat inflammatory eye diseases. In 1999, it was found that curcumin was effective at managing this chronic condition. Then in 2008, curcumin was used in an animal model that proved it could also aid in therapy used to protect patients from lung transplantation-associated injuries by “deactivating” inflammatory genes.

Turmeric Fights Drug-Resistant Cancers… it’s been shown that curcumin can battle against cancers that are resistant to chemotherapy and radiation…

END OF QUOTE

As I said, turmeric is fascinating and promising, but such hype is clearly counter-productive and dangerous. As so often, the reality is much more sobering than the fantasy of uncritical quacks. Research is currently very active and has produced a host of interesting findings. Here are the conclusions (+links) of a few, recent reviews:

Overall, there is early evidence that turmeric/curcumin products and supplements, both oral and topical, may provide therapeutic benefits for skin health. However, currently published studies are limited and further studies will be essential to better evaluate efficacy and the mechanisms involved.

This meta-analysis of RCTs suggested a significant effect of curcumin in lowering circulating TNF-α concentration.

While statistical significant differences in outcomes were reported in a majority of studies, the small magnitude of effect and presence of major study limitations hinder application of these results.

Overall, scientific literature shows that curcumin possesses anti-diabetic effects and mitigates diabetes complications.

The highlighted studies in the review provide evidence of the ability of curcumin to reduce the body’s natural response to cutaneous wounds such as inflammation and oxidation. The recent literature on the wound healing properties of curcumin also provides evidence for its ability to enhance granulation tissue formation, collagen deposition, tissue remodeling and wound contraction. It has become evident that optimizing the topical application of curcumin through altering its formulation is essential to ensure the maximum therapeutical effects of curcumin on skin wounds.

What emerges from a critical reading of the evidence is that turmeric has potential in several different areas. Generally speaking, clinical trials are still thin on the ground, not of sufficient rigor and therefore not conclusive. In other words, it is far too early to state or imply that we all should rush to the next health food store and buy the supplements.

On the contrary, at this stage, I would even warn people not to be seduced by the unprofessional hype and wait until we know more – much more. There might be risks associated with ingesting turmeric at high doses over long periods of time. And there are fundamental open questions about oral intake. One recent review cautioned: …its extremely low oral bioavailability hampers its application as therapeutic agent.

WATCH THIS SPACE!

You have to excuse me, if I keep coming back to this theme: so-called ‘alternative cancer cures’ are truly dangerous. I have tried to explain this already many times, for instance here, here and here. And it is by no means just alternative therapists who make a living of such quackery. Sadly qualified medical doctors are often involved as well. As to prove my point, here is a tragic story that broke yesterday:

Former Miss New Hampshire, Rachel Petz Dowd, lost her battle with cancer on Sunday 12 June 2016 — a battle she fought publicly through personal writings in a blog in hopes of helping others on a similar journey toward healing. The singer/songwriter and mother of three from Auburn died about a month after traveling to Mexico for an aggressive form of alternative cancer treatment. She turned 47 last week. Dowd was diagnosed with stage 2 triple negative breast cancer in May 2014. The diagnosis led her to create a blog called “Rachel’s Healing” to document what she hoped would be a journey back to health. “I hope my readers can gain something from my journey and that they find their own personal way to combat this disease impacting too many women today,” she wrote. Dowd used the blog to share her experiences with traditional and natural medicine during her cancer fight.

On 5/3/16 Mrs Dowd wrote on her blog: “Well after some careful consideration and looking at different clinics and hospitals we’ve made a decision. Will be going to the CMN Hospital on the Yuma, Arizona border*. For 28 days of treatments. It’s not a day clinic but a full hospital servicing over the past 30 years. There’s a special wing dedicated to alternative cancer care and the treatment list is impressive.  Many treatments that are not available in this country. We feel this would be the best course of care daily for 28 days and then at the end of the 4 weeks I intend my immune system to be back on-line. I will be doing a stem cell boost of my bone marrow the last week. I know of a women, Shannon Knight, from The Truth About Cancer documentary, who had stage 4 metastasized into locations of her bones and her lungs and she came out of there completely cured. Her oncologist said it was nothing short of a miracle, but she said no it was just clean hard work!  She said no it was just clean the hard, aggressive treatments that only attack cancer, boost and prime your immune system, become a whole, healthy being once again:) It is possible and I am planning on being one of the exceptions like Shannon!”

  • The hospital is across the US border in Mexico; it is run by medically qualified personnel.

The hospital [“CMN Hospital’s facility is only 14 blocks away once you cross the border to begin your alternative cancer treatment”] has a website where they tell a somewhat confusing story about their treatment plans; here is a short but telling excerpt:

CMN’s protocols are individualized and comprehensive. You will benefit from oxidative therapies, IV minerals selenium and bicarbonate IV vitamins such as vitamin B-17 and IV vitamin C. Far infrared and others including MAHT, Cold Laser Therapy, Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy and Ozone Therapy are a daily part of your protocol. Ultraviolet Blood Irradiation is effective in destroying pathogens in your blood and slows the growth of cancer cell growth. CMN’s Stem cell therapy and Dendritic cell therapy are just two of the advanced cancer treatments applied to patients.”

And here is what they say about three therapies as examples of treatments that have discussed before on this blog: vitamin C, Laetrile and Essiac.

IV Vitamin C If large amounts of vitamin C are presented to cancer cells, large amounts will be absorbed. In these unusually large concentrations, the antioxidant vitamin C will start behaving as a pro-oxidant as it interacts with intracellular copper and iron. This chemical interaction produces small amounts of hydrogen peroxide. Because cancer cells are relatively low in an intracellular anti-oxidant enzyme called catalase, the high dose vitamin C induction of peroxide will continue to build up until it eventually lyses the cancer cell from the inside out!

IV Vitamin B17 / Laetrile Also known as amygdaline, Vitamin B-17 is a molecule made up of four parts: -2 parts Glucose -1 part Benzaldahyde-1 part Hydrogen Cyanide. Laetrile is found in at least 1200 different plants, including apricots, peaches, apple seeds, lentils, cashews, brown rice, millet, and alfalfa. Commercial preparations of laetrile are obtained from the kernels of apricots, peaches and bitter almonds. The body requires an enzyme called beta-glucosidase in order to process laetrile and release the cyanide. Studies have shown that cancer cells contain more of this enzyme than normal cells, which allows for a higher release of cyanide at tumor sites. Another enzyme known as rhodanese is important in this process. Normal healthy cells contain rhodanese which protects them from the activated cyanide. Most cancer cells are deficient in this enzyme, leaving them vulnerable to the poison. Tumor destruction begins once the cyanide is released within the malignancies, meaning laetrile therapy is selectively toxic to cancer cells while remaining non-toxic to normal cells.

Essiac Tea / Order Original Essiac Tea Essiac, given its name by Rene Caisse (“caisse” spelt backwards), consists of four main herbs that grow in the wilderness of Ontario, Canada. The original formula is believed to have its roots from the native Canadian Ojibway Indians. The four main herbs that make up Essiac are Burdock Root, Slippery Elm Inner Bark, Sheep Sorrel and Indian Rhubarb Root. Essiac tea helps release toxins that build up in fat and tissues into the blood stream where they can be filtered and excreted by the liver and kidneys.  Cleaning the body of toxins and impurities frees up the immune system to focus on killing cancer cells and protecting the body.

 

I think I will abstain from further comments, firstly because I want to avoid getting sued by these people and secondly because it seems all too depressingly obvious.

We tend to trust charities; many of us donate to charities; we think highly of the work they do and the advice they issue. And why shouldn’t we? After all, a ‘charity’ is ‘an institution or organization set up to provide help, money, etc, to those in need’. Not a hint at anything remotely sinister here – charities are good!

Except, of course, those that are not so good!

By ‘not so good’ I mean charities that misinform the public to a point where they might even endanger our health, well-being and savings. Yes, I am speaking of those charities that promote unproven or disproven alternative therapies – and unfortunately, there are many of those around today.

Our recent letter in the SUNDAY TIMES, tried to alert the public to this problem and to the fact that the UK regulator seems to be failing to do much about it. A Charity Commission spokesman, in turn, replied that his organisation had received the letter and would respond formally to it:

“The Commission is required to register organisations as charities which are established for exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit,” he said. “Charitable purposes for the advancement of health include conventional methods as well as complementary, alternative or holistic methods which are concerned with healing mind, body and spirit in the alleviation of symptoms and the cure of illness. Those organisations dealing with complementary and alternative medicines must be able to demonstrate that they are capable of promoting health otherwise they will not be for the public benefit.

“The Commission is the registrar and regulator of charities however it is not the authority in the efficacy of any and every non-traditional medical treatment. These are issues of substantial debate with a variety of opinions. Each case is considered on its merits based on the evidence available. To be charitable there needs to be sufficient evidence of the efficacy of the method to be used. The Commission must further be assured that any potential harm that might be said to arise does not outweigh the benefit identified by the method.

“The Commission expects charities to provide information that is factually accurate with legitimate evidence.” 

But is the information provided by all charities factually accurate?

Take, for instance, YES TO LIFE! Have a good look and then decide for yourself.

On their website they state: “We provide support, information and financial assistance to those with cancer seeking to pursue approaches that are currently unavailable on the NHS. We also run a series of educational seminars and workshops which are aimed at the general public who want to know more and practitioners working with people who have cancer.”

The website informs us about many alternative therapies and directly or indirectly promote them for the curative or supportive treatment of cancer. I have chosen 5 of them and copied the respective summaries as published by YES TO LIFE. My main selection criterion was having done some research myself on the modality in question. Here are the 5 cancer treatments which I selected; the text from YES TO LIFE is in bold, and that of my published research is in normal print with a link to the published paper:

CARCTOL

Carctol is a relatively inexpensive product, specifically formulated to assist cells with damaged respiration, it is also a powerful antioxidant that targets free radicals, the cause of much cellular damage. It also acts to detoxify the system.

The claim that Carctol is of any benefit to cancer patients is not supported by scientific evidence.

LAETRILE

Often given intravenously as part of a programme of Metabolic Therapy, Laetrile is a non-toxic extract of apricot kernels. The claimed mechanism of action that is broken down by enzymes found in cancer cells. Hydrogen cyanide, one of the products of this reaction then has a local toxic effect on the cells.

The claims that laetrile or amygdalin have beneficial effects for cancer patients are not currently supported by sound clinical data. There is a considerable risk of serious adverse effects from cyanide poisoning after laetrile or amygdalin, especially after oral ingestion. The risk-benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is therefore unambiguously negative.

MISTLETOE

Mistletoe therapy was developed as an adjunct to cancer treatment in Switzerland in 1917-20, in the collaboration between Dr I Wegman MD and Dr Rudolf Steiner PhD (1861-1925). Mistletoe extracts are typically administered by subcutaneous injection, often over many years. Mistletoe treatment improves quality of life, supports patients during recommended conventional cancer treatments and some studies show survival benefit. It is safe and has no adverse interactions with conventional cancer treatments.

None of the methodologically stronger trials exhibited efficacy in terms of quality of life, survival or other outcome measures. Rigorous trials of mistletoe extracts fail to demonstrate efficacy of this therapy.

UKRAIN

A type of low toxicity chemotherapy derived from a combination of two known cytotoxic drugs that are of little use individually, as the doses required for effective anticancer action are too high to be tolerated. However the combination is effective at far lower doses, with few side effects.

The data from randomised clinical trials suggest Ukrain to have potential as an anticancer drug. However, numerous caveats prevent a positive conclusion, and independent rigorous studies are urgently needed. [To judge the validity of this last treatment, I also recommend reading a previous post of mine.]

Finally, it might be informative to see who the individuals behind YES TO LIFE are. I invite you to have a look at their list of medical advisors which, I think, speaks for itself. It includes, for instance, Dr Michael Dixon of whom we have heard before on this blog, for instance, here, here and here.

Say no more!

While over on my post about the new NICE GUIDELINES on acupuncture for back pain, the acupuncturists’ assassination attempts of my character, competence, integrity and personality are in full swing, I have decided to employ my time more fruitfully and briefly comment on a new piece of acupuncture research.

This new Italian study was to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture for the management of hot flashes in women with breast cancer.

A total of 190 women with breast cancer were randomly assigned to two groups. Random assignment was performed with stratification for hormonal therapy; the allocation ratio was 1:1. Both groups received a booklet with information about climacteric syndrome and its management to be followed for at least 12 weeks. In addition, the acupuncture group received 10 traditional acupuncture treatment sessions involving needling of predefined acupoints.

The primary outcome was hot flash score at the end of treatment (week 12), calculated as the frequency multiplied by the average severity of hot flashes. The secondary outcomes were climacteric symptoms and quality of life, measured by the Greene Climacteric and Menopause Quality of Life scales. Health outcomes were measured for up to 6 months after treatment. Expectation and satisfaction of treatment effect and safety were also evaluated. We used intention-to-treat analyses.

Of the participants, 105 were randomly assigned to enhanced self-care and 85 to acupuncture plus enhanced self-care. Acupuncture plus enhanced self-care was associated with a significantly lower hot flash score than enhanced self-care at the end of treatment (P < .001) and at 3- and 6-month post-treatment follow-up visits (P = .0028 and .001, respectively). Acupuncture was also associated with fewer climacteric symptoms and higher quality of life in the vasomotor, physical, and psychosocial dimensions (P < .05).

The authors concluded that acupuncture in association with enhanced self-care is an effective integrative intervention for managing hot flashes and improving quality of life in women with breast cancer.

This hardly needs a comment, as I have been going on about this study design many times before: the ‘A+B versus B’ design can only produce positive findings. Any such study concluding that ‘acupuncture (or whatever other intervention) is effective’ can therefore not be a legitimate test of a hypothesis and ought to be categorised as pseudo-science. Sadly, this problem seems more the rule than the exception in the realm of acupuncture research. That’s a pity really… because, if there is potential in acupuncture at all, this sort of thing can only distract from it.

I think the JOURNAL OF CLINICAL ONCOLOGY, its editors and reviewers, should be ashamed of having published such misleading rubbish.

A recent comment to a blog-post about alternative treatments for cancer inspired me to ponder a bit. I think it is noteworthy because it exemplifies so many of the comments I hear in the realm of alternative medicine on an almost daily basis. Here is the comment in question:

“Yes…it appears that the medical establishment have known for years that chemotherapy a lot of the time kills patients faster than if they were untreated…what’s more, it worsens a person’s quality of life in which many die directly of the severe effects on the endocrine, immune system and more…cancers often return in more aggressive forms metastasising with an increased risk of apoptosis. In other words it makes things worse whereas there are many natural remedies which not only do no harm but accumulating evidence points to their capacity to fight cancer…some of it is bullshit whilst some holds some truth!! So turning away from toxic treatments that kill towards natural approaches that are showing more hope with the backing of trials kinda reverses the whole argument of this article.”

The comment first annoyed me a bit, of course, but later it made me think and consider the differences between conspiracy theories, assumptions, opinions, evidence and scientific facts. Let’s tackle each of these in turn.

CONSPIRACY THEORIES

A conspiracy theory is an explanatory or speculative theory suggesting that two or more persons, or an organization, have conspired to cause or cover up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an event or situation typically regarded as illegal or harmful.

Part of the above comment bears some of the hallmarks of a conspiracy theory: “…the medical establishment have known for years that chemotherapy a lot of the time kills patients faster than if they were untreated…” The assumption here is that the conventional healthcare practitioners are evil enough to knowingly do harm to their patients. Such conspiracy theories abound in the realm of alternative medicine; they include the notions that

  • BIG PHARMA is out to kill us all in order to maximize their profits,
  • the ‘establishment’ is suppressing any information about the benefits of alternative treatments,
  • vaccinations are known to be harmful but nevertheless being forced on to our children,
  • drug regulators are in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry,
  • doctors accept bribes for prescribing dangerous drugs
  • etc. etc.

In a previous blog-post, I have discussed the fact that the current popularity of alternative medicine is at least partly driven by the conviction that there is a sinister plot by ‘the establishment’ that prevents people from benefitting from the wonders of alternative treatments. It is therefore hardly surprising that conspiracy theories like the above are voiced regularly on this blog and elsewhere.

ASSUMPTION

An assumption is something taken for granted or accepted as true without proof.

The above comment continues stating that “…[chemotherapy] makes things worse whereas there are many natural remedies which not only do no harm but accumulating evidence points to their capacity to fight cancer…” There is not proof for these assertions, yet the author takes them for granted. If one were to look for the known facts, one would find the assumptions to be erroneous: chemotherapy has saved countless lives and there simply are no natural remedies that will cure any form of cancer. In the realm of alternative medicine, this seems to worry few, and assumptions of this or similar nature are being made every day. Sadly the plethora of assumptions or bogus claims eventually endanger public health.

OPINION

An opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement about matters commonly considered to be subjective.

The above comment continues with the opinion that “…turning away from toxic treatments that kill towards natural approaches that are showing more hope with the backing of trials kinda reverses the whole argument of this article.” In general, alternative medicine is based on opinions of this sort. On this blog, we have plenty of examples for that in the comments section. This is perhaps understandable; evidence is usually in short supply, and therefore it often is swiftly replaced with often emotionally loaded opinions. It is even fair to say that much of alternative medicine is, in truth, opinion-based healthcare.

EVIDENCE

Evidence is anything presented in support of an assertion. This support may be strong or weak. The strongest type of evidence is that which provides direct proof of the truth of an assertion.

One remarkable feature of the above comment is that it is bar of any evidence. In a previous post, I have tried to explain the nature of evidence regarding the efficacy of medical interventions:

The multifactorial nature of any clinical response requires controlling for all the factors that might determine the outcome other than the treatment per se. Ideally, we would need to create a situation or an experiment where two groups of patients are exposed to the full range of factors (e. g. placebo effects, natural history of the condition, regression towards the mean), and the only difference is that one group does receive the treatment, while the other one does not. And this is precisely the model of a controlled clinical trial.

Such studies are designed to minimise all possible sources of bias and confounding. By definition, they have a control group which means that we can, at the end of the treatment period, compare the effects of the treatment in question with those of another intervention, a placebo or no treatment at all.

Many different variations of the controlled trial exist so that the exact design can be adapted to the requirements of the particular treatment and the specific research question at hand. The over-riding principle is, however, always the same: we want to make sure that we can reliably determine whether or not the treatment was the cause of the clinical outcome.

Causality is the key in all of this; and here lies the crucial difference between clinical experience and scientific evidence. What clinician witness in their routine practice can have a myriad of causes; what scientists observe in a well-designed efficacy trial is, in all likelihood, caused by the treatment. The latter is evidence, while the former is not.

Don’t get me wrong; clinical trials are not perfect. They can have many flaws and have rightly been criticised for a myriad of inherent limitations. But it is important to realise that, despite all their short-comings, they are far superior than any other method for determining the efficacy of medical interventions.

There are lots of reasons why a trial can generate an incorrect, i.e. a false positive or a false negative result. We therefore should avoid relying on the findings of a single study. Independent replications are usually required before we can be reasonably sure.

Unfortunately, the findings of these replications do not always confirm the results of the previous study. Whenever we are faced with conflicting results, it is tempting to cherry-pick those studies which seem to confirm our prior belief – tempting but very wrong. In order to arrive at the most reliable conclusion about the efficacy of any treatment, we need to consider the totality of the reliable evidence. This goal is best achieved by conducting a systematic review.

In a systematic review, we assess the quality and quantity of the available evidence, try to synthesise the findings and arrive at an overall verdict about the efficacy of the treatment in question. Technically speaking, this process minimises selection and random biases. Systematic reviews and meta-analyses [these are systematic reviews that pool the data of individual studies] therefore constitute, according to a consensus of most experts, the best available evidence for or against the efficacy of any treatment.

SCIENTIFIC FACTS

Scientific facts are verified by repeatable careful observation or measurement (by experiments or other means).

Some facts related to the subject of alternative medicine have already been mentioned:

  • chemotherapy prolongs survival of many cancer patients;
  • no alternative therapy has achieved anything remotely similar.

The comment above that motivated me to write this somewhat long-winded post is devoid of facts. This is just one more feature that makes it so typical of the comments by proponents of alternative medicine we see with such embarrassing regularity.

One of the things about alternative medicine that I find most regrettable is the fact that researchers in this area abuse science for their very own promotional aims. This phenomenon is so very common, in my view, that many of the individuals involved in it are no longer aware of it. Science, they seem to think, is a tool for marketing products or for popularising the idea that alternative medicine is the best thing since sliced bread.

To support this bold statement, I could show you virtually hundreds of articles. But this might bore your socks off, and instead I will focus on just one paper which has just been published and makes my point in an exemplary fashion.

The new clinical investigation was performed to confirm the benefit of complementary medicine in patients with breast cancer undergoing adjuvant hormone therapy (HT). A total of 1561 patients were treated according to international guidelines. They suffered from arthralgia and mucosal dryness induced by the adjuvant HT. In order to reduce the side-effects, the patients were complementarily treated with a combination of sodium selenite, proteolytic plant enzymes (bromelaine and papain) and Lens culinaris lectin. Outcomes were documented before and four weeks after complementary treatment. Validation was carried-out by scoring from 1 (no side-effects/optimal tolerability) to 6 (extreme side-effects/extremely poor tolerability). A total of 1,165 patients suffering from severe side-effects (symptom scores >3) were enrolled in this investigation.

Overall, 62.6% of patients (729 out of 1,165) suffering from severe arthralgia and 71.7% of patients (520 out of 725) with severe mucosal dryness significantly benefited from the oral combination product. Mean scores of symptoms declined from 4.83 before treatment to 3.23 after four weeks of treatment for arthralgia and from 4.72 before treatment to 2.99 after four weeks of treatment for mucosal dryness, the primary aims of the present investigation. The reduction of side-effects of HT was statistically significant after four weeks.

The authors concluded that this investigation confirms studies suggesting a benefit of complementary treatment with the combination of sodium selenite, proteolytic enzymes and L. culinaris lectin in patients with breast cancer.

Where should I start?

  • This ‘investigation’ was nothing other than a survey.
  • There was no control group, and we therefore cannot tell whether the patients would not have done just a well or even better without taking this supplement.
  • No objective outcome measure was included.
  • What happened to the ~400 patients who were not included in the analyses?
  • Even the authors admit that their aim was “to confirm the benefit of complementary medicine…”, and it goes without saying that, with such an aim in mind, any scientific rigor is not welcome.
Science, I had always assumed, is a means of generating progress. This sort of pseudoscience can only generate the opposite. The sad thing is that, in alternative medicine, pseudoscience of this nature seems to dominate the scene. The victims here are we all: as the false-positive findings accumulate, the overall evidence is being distorted and wrong therapeutic decisions become inevitable.

I just came across this announcement and thought I let the readers of this blog know about it:

Journal of Cancer Therapy Special Issue on Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Cancer

A complementary therapy is treatment that is used along with standard medical treatment.  An alternative therapy is generally used instead of conventional medical treatment. They both are non-traditional methods of diagnosing, preventing, or treating cancer or its symptoms, and usually have not gone through rigorous testing and are not supported by evidence. Some types of therapy may not be completely safe and may even cause harmful side effects.

In this special issue, we intend to invite front-line researchers and authors to submit original research and review articles on exploring Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Cancer. Potential topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Acupuncture
  • Amygdalin
  • Brachytherapy
  • Cyberknife
  • Essiac therapy
  • Herbal remedies
  • Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
  • Ketogenic diet
  • Massage therapy
  • Music therapy
  • Photodynamic therapy
  • Relaxation techniques

I know nothing about this journal; I cannot say that it looks overtly woolly – but the announcement seems a little odd. Some of the treatments listed, for instance, clearly do NOT fall under the umbrella of CAM. And, somehow, I get the feeling that they might be looking for contributions that are in favour of CAM for cancer or promote ‘integrative oncology’ – but I might be entirely wrong here.
Anyway, to make sure they get some critical submissions on the subject, I thought I let all of you know. Perhaps you feel like sending them an article pointing out that AN ALTERNATIVE CANCER CURE IS A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS.

When given the diagnosis ‘CANCER’, most people go into some sort of shock. Once they have recovered, they are likely to learn that they now face many months of very aggressive treatments which will reduce their quality of life to almost zero. This, they are told, is no guarantee but will merely increase their chances to survive the cancer.

Understandably, before they make what might be the most important decision of their lives, patients are desperate and tempted to look elsewhere to find out for themselves what their options are. It would be foolish to simply accept what their team of health care professionals have been saying. With decisions as important as this one, it is wise to listen to second and possibly third opinions. Who could argue with this logic?

Most cancer patients then go on the Internet and have a look at what alternatives are on offer. Here they find virtually millions of sites offering information. A person with pancreatic cancer might thus be unfortunate enough to stumble over a site called What Alternative Medicine works best against Pancreatic Cancer? If she does, her life is at risk.

You think I am exaggerating? In this case, let me quote from this website (I made no changes whatsoever, not even corrections of the spelling mistakes):

Just to remind you this particular thread is concerned with alternative treatments for cancer. People here are seeking information about alternative medicine. Now we all know that immunotherapy represents potentially a great leap forward in the treatment of cancer in the mainstream medical community although the stats are still pretty low for repsonse most of which have been done on melanoma patients. Nonetheless impresive compared to the useless toxic treatments peddled by the drug industry over the last 30 years. Interferon being one of the worst treatments inflicted on many a poor cancer patient along with chemo and radiation for which many cancers have little or no response and are extremely toxic. I make no false claims about the work of Dr Kelley or Dr Gonzalez for that matter. For those willing to dig a little and research their work they will find a body of good evidence for their protocol.

You might say that this is an extreme exception of irresponsible, life-threatening misinformation. But I disagree. The Internet is full with sites of this nature. They promote treatments for which there is no good evidence; what is worse, they encourage patients to forego conventional treatments which might save their lives. If anyone then dares to point this out, he will be attacked for being in the pocket of ‘Big Pharma’.

I know, a little insignificant post like mine will change very little, but I also feel strongly that, if I do not keep banging on about this issue, who else will warn patients that misinformation from the Internet and other sources can kill?

Many cancer patients use mistletoe extracts either hoping to cure their cancer or to alleviate its symptoms. The evidence that mistletoe treatment (MT) can achieve either of these goals is mixed but, on the whole, however, it is not positive. Our own systematic review of 2003 concluded that ‘rigorous trials of mistletoe extracts fail to demonstrate efficacy of this therapy’. The more recent Cochrane review concurred: ‘The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak.’

Patients’ experiences of side effects and the acceptability, tolerability, and perceived benefits of MT have not been assessed critically. The aim of this new article was to systematically review and synthesise the results of qualitative studies of cancer patients’ experiences of using MT.

Electronic searches were conducted in MEDLINE, Embase, PsychLIT, CINAHL, and AMED to identify all qualitative studies of MT. Articles were screened independently by two reviewers and critically appraised using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme tool. A thematic synthesis of the findings was carried out.

One hundred and seventy-three papers were identified; 156 were excluded at initial screening. Seventeen papers were read in full, 14 of which were excluded. Three articles about patients’ experiences of MT alongside conventional treatment were included in the synthesis, either as a monotherapy (two articles) or as part of a package of anthroposophic treatment (one article). Patients reported demonstrable changes to their physical, emotional, and psychosocial well-being following MT, as well as a reduction in chemotherapy side effects. Self-reported side effects from MT were few, and the studies suggest good adherence to the therapy. Self-injection gave patients a sense of empowerment through involvement in their own treatment.

The authors concluded that ‘given the variation in context of MT delivery across the articles, it is not possible to ascribe changes in patients’ quality of life specifically to MT.’

This might be a polite way of saying that there is no good evidence to suggest that MT positively affects patients’ experiences of side effects and the acceptability, tolerability, and perceived benefits.

Mistletoe is, of course, the ‘flagship’ intervention of Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical medicine. About a century ago, his idea was simple (or should this be ‘simplistic’?): the mistletoe plant is a parasite that lives off host trees sapping its resources until, eventually, it might even kill its host – just like cancer threatening the life of a human being. It follows, according to the homeopathy-inspired Steiner and the many followers of his cult that mistletoe is an effective cancer therapy.

Despite the weirdness of this concept and the largely negative evidence, MT is hugely popular as a cancer cure, particularly in German-speaking countries. The question I ask myself is this: ISN’T IT TIME THAT THIS NONSENSE STOPS?

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