MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

Cancer

Guest post by Louise Lubetkin

Those who recognize and appreciate a fine example of pseudoscientific baloney when they see one know that there is no richer seam, no more inexhaustible source, than the bustling, huckster-infested street carnival that is alternative medicine. There one can find intellectual swindlers in abundance, all offering outrageously implausible claims with the utmost earnestness and sincerity. But the supreme prize, the Fabergé egg found buried among the bric-a-brac, surely belongs to that most convincing of illusionists, the physician reborn as an ardent advocate of alternative medicine.

Why would any physician, exhaustively trained in the basic sciences that underpin every aspect of medical practice, decide to toss aside the entire canon in favor of a return to blatant mumbo jumbo?

There can be only two possible explanations, and they’re mutually exclusive.

First is the unsavory possibility that the physician who embraces alternative medicine is a cynical charlatan who knows full well that what is being offered is worthless, but sees it as a path to a more lucrative form of practice that is largely paid for out of pocket, in cash, requiring no tedious insurance company paperwork and avoiding the unpleasant possibility of Medicare audits.

And then there is the opposite explanation: the physician has actually become a true believer, in which case the wholesale rejection of his or her scientific training is essential in order to resolve the uneasy tension between what the physician knows to be fundamentally true and what he or she ardently believes and wishes were true. The two are diametrically opposed: one is a system of thinking in which each component has been painstakingly validated, assessed and reassessed over time, and revised where necessary with the emergence of new knowledge. The other is a simply a belief system founded on faith and wishful thinking.

Alternative medicine, particularly in the realm of cancer, has a long history of attracting people who are seduced by simplistic explanations of this dauntingly implacable and hugely complex constellation of diseases and become gripped by a messianic conviction that this is the true path to a cure. Never mind that such explanations have usually been around for a very long time and have been repeatedly debunked in carefully conducted studies. There is usually an element of paranoia involved: they see themselves as martyrs and explain the medical profession’s indifference to this revolutionary truth as a conspiracy designed to maintain a profitable status quo by silencing dissidents, especially when they arise from within the medical profession itself.

Which of these explanations is the correct one in any particular situation is not always easy to discern. Take the case of Nicholas James Gonzalez, M.D., a New York physician turned alternative practitioner whose practice focuses largely on the treatment of advanced cancer by nutritional means.

THE ORIGINS OF GONZALEZ’S TREATMENT

Gonzalez presents himself as a true believer who became a convert to alternative medicine after coming across the work of William Donald Kelley, D.D.S., a Texas orthodontist who had his own Damascene conversion when his doctors told him that he was dying of pancreatic cancer and that there was nothing more that they could do for him. Undeterred, Kelley claimed that he had cured himself by means of a rigorous diet combined with frequent self-administered coffee enemas. After thus miraculously dragging himself (and his enema bucket) back from the banks of the River Styx, Kelley decided to abandon straightening children’s teeth in favor of treating people with advanced cancer – perhaps not the most logical career move, to be sure, but Texas is Texas.

Probably the most famous of Kelley’s patients was the actor Steve McQueen, who, in the advanced stages of mesothelioma, turned to the erstwhile orthodontist in search of a cure. Not surprisingly, McQueen died despite Kelley’s ministrations, an unfortunate turn of events which Kelley rationalized away by claiming that he had in fact successfully cured McQueen, but that the medical establishment had subsequently had McQueen murdered in order to prevent him “blowing the lid off the cancer racket.”

But back to Gonzalez.

Like Kelley before him, Gonzalez bases his treatment on the work of James Beard, a long-dead Scottish embryologist who, more than 100 years ago, put forward the notion that all cancer was caused by wayward cells called trophoblasts. Trophoblasts are the cells which organize around the developing embryo very early in pregnancy, and which ultimately give rise to the placenta. Beard, of course, lived and died long before the advent of electron microscopy, the unraveling of the structure of DNA and a myriad other crucial discoveries that have helped to elucidate the hugely complex phenomenon that is collectively referred to as cancer. While his observations concerning the similarities between the invasiveness of cancer and the ability of the primitive placenta to tunnel its way into the uterine wall were undoubtedly astute, they are inadequate to explain what is now known about the etiology and progression of cancer.

Having observed that the placenta’s invasion of the uterine wall ceased at the very moment that the fetal pancreas became active, he took a leap of faith and postulated that it was the fetal pancreatic enzymes that were responsible for arresting the growth and invasion of the trophoblast layer. Beard went further, suggesting that quite apart from their role in digestion, pancreatic enzymes actually represent the body’s main defense against cancer, and therefore it should be possible to control cancer by administering large quantities of pancreatic enzymes.

This hundred-year-old hypothesis forms the cornerstone of the cancer treatment program devised by Gonzalez. (It should also be mentioned that Gonzalez doesn’t limit himself to the treatment of cancer, but uses the same methodology for treating a range of chronic degenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, presumably on the assumption that wayward trophoblasts are responsible for these, also, although it is difficult to imagine exactly how.)

Beard rightly surmised that pancreatic enzymes could not be successfully administered by mouth because the acid environment of the stomach would inactivate them immediately. Furthermore, being proteins themselves, any orally administered pancreatic enzymes would be quickly broken down by the gastric enzyme pepsin. Beard therefore advocated administering the enzymes by hypodermic injection.

In this, and in other ways, Beard seems to have been considerably more circumspect about his theory and its therapeutic implications than his modern day acolytes. It is interesting to note that he conspicuously refrained from making any claim that his method was a cure for cancer. A contemporary account of the public debate over Beard’s theory of cancer origins and treatment, which appeared in 1907 in the New York Times, is available here.

Much has happened since Beard’s day, it’s true, but gastric physiology and the essentials of protein digestion have not changed an iota. Pepsin is still pepsin, and the stomach is still awash in acid. Nevertheless, Gonzalez insists that the oral route is perfectly adequate. This odd departure from otherwise strict historical orthodoxy may have more to do with regulatory issues than pharmacokinetics: the type of enzymes he uses are viewed as dietary supplements by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rather than as prescription drugs, and are therefore unregulated.

GONZALEZ’S TREATMENT

In addition to pancreatic enzymes taken by mouth, Gonzalez prescribes a restrictive diet (which, even for those whom be pronounces to be obligate vegetarians, includes raw liver), and a staggering number of nutritional supplements which patients must take at regular intervals throughout the day and night.

The dietary guidelines he issues to his patients contain an amazing array of obviously unsound statements which bespeak not only a total abandonment of logical thinking on the part of their author, but also a casual disregard for objective fact, as though the solid benchmarks of physiology and biochemistry, such as pH, were just another narrative.

And then of course there’s the obligatory detoxification, without which no alternative treatment regimen could possibly be considered complete. But beyond its role as a doctrinal tenet, the notion that the body is inadequate to the task of handling its own waste holds a special utility for the practitioner of alternative cancer treatment. By insisting on regular and vigorous detoxification, the practitioner can reinforce the idea that the treatment regime – in this case, the pancreatic enzyme barrage – is working so well that the patient’s liver and bloodstream are in danger of being overrun by waste products from tumor breakdown. This must be a great boost to a patient in the advanced stages of cancer who is grimly contemplating his umpteenth coffee enema of the week and struggling to swallow another round of 30 supplement pills. However, most self-respecting physicians and patients would surely like to have that comforting assertion about massive tumor destruction confirmed with some kind of objective test such as imaging. And if the liver is really so hobbled by its task that it has to be supported by regular retrograde sluicing with tepid coffee, perhaps a few blood tests of liver function might be in order? It appears that such considerations are purely for pedants and infidels: real believers have no need for such niceties.

And then there are the supplements, in staggering quantities and bewildering combinations:

Five times during your waking hours take:

  • 16 pancreas glandular tissue
  • 1 magnesium citrate 60mg

With two doses of pancreas glandular take

  • 2 chicken collagen type II

During breakfast and dinner (twice daily) take:

  • 1 amino acids
  • 1 Calsym (vitamin D3 and calcium carbonate)
  • 1 thyroid (sic)
  • 1 vitamin E 100 IU

During each meal (3 times daily) take:

  • 1 adrenal glandular
  • 2 vitamin C
  • 1 Atlantic kelp
  • 2 Formula #1 (sic)
  • 1 liver
  • 1 lung
  • 2 magnesium citrate 60mg
  • 1 digest aid
  • 1 multivitamin
  • 1 multimineral
  • 3 pancreas glandular tissue
  • 3 thymus glandular tissue
  • 1 vitamin 400 IU

During lunch only take:

  • 1 beta carotene 25,000
  • 1 copper gluconate
  • 1 potassium citrate
  • 1 vitamin A 10,000 (which incidentally is twice the recommended daily allowance)

At bedtime take:

  • 2 iron
  • 2 magnesium citrate 60mg
  • 4 RNA/DNA (sic)

At 3:30am take:

  • 16 pancreas glandular tissue

The patient following such a program would take 187 supplement pills daily. Regardless of the dosage of active ingredients involved, the sheer volume and weight of excipients that are ingested during any one 24 hour period is surely something to take into account, especially in a patient debilitated by the ravages of advanced cancer. In a regimen that puts such emphasis on detoxification this is a curious departure indeed.

But onward.

THE EVIDENCE

In 1999, Gonzalez published a paper in the journal Nutrition and Cancer (abstract here) claiming that he had achieved significantly increased survival in 11 patients with inoperable pancreatic cancer by treating them with what he described as “an aggressive nutritional therapy with large doses of pancreatic enzymes.”

Now bear in mind that pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive and deadly of all malignancies. The majority of people with pancreatic adenocarcinoma, which is by far the commonest form of pancreatic cancer, die within a few months of their diagnosis; only one in five patients survive the first year, and just four percent of patients live five years beyond diagnosis.

So when Gonzalez published his paper asserting that 9 of the 11 patients (81%) whom he had treated with this regimen survived one year, while 5 (45%) survived two years, and the remaining 4 patients were still alive and holding their own at the 3 year mark, people sat up and took notice.

Despite the fact that this was a very small study, and rife with biases (not least, an obvious selection bias: a further 12 patients who were unable to comply fully with the treatment were excluded from the analysis), it was sufficiently positive a report in an otherwise unrelievedly gloomy prognostic landscape that it prompted further investigation. Ultimately a full-fledged phase III clinical trial comparing Gonzalez’ nutritional protocol to the standard chemotherapy regimen in pancreatic cancer patients was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and was carried out at Columbia University.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the trial turned out to be hugely contentious and very unorthodox. As a means of eliminating experimental bias, clinical trials are typically “blinded” and randomized – i.e., they are carefully designed so that patients are randomly assigned to one group or the other, and neither the patients nor the physicians know which treatment they are receiving. But in this case there was no way that the trial could be randomized or blinded. Patients could choose whether to undergo chemotherapy or to be assigned to the Gonzalez protocol group, so both they and the investigating physicians knew what treatment they were getting from the beginning.

When it became apparent, as it quickly did, that the results were not going to reflect well on his treatment protocol. Gonzalez began clamoring loudly for an investigation, claiming that the clinical trial had been deliberately rigged to discredit him. (Those interested in the background to the clinical trial, including a very thorough discussion of its ethical and scientific implications, can read about it in several installments, titled “The Ethics of CAM Trials” (parts I-V), here.)

The results of the clinical trial were reported in a paper published in October, 2009, in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (article here). To summarize the results, the 32 patients who underwent traditional chemotherapy lived more than three times as long (14 months vs 4.3 months), and had a measurably better quality of life, including less pain than those treated by the Gonzalez protocol – and since pancreatic cancer is notoriously painful, this is a hugely important consideration in any treatment, regardless of whether or not it extends survival.

But perhaps the most extraordinary and disturbing aspect of the paper was this paragraph, in the Methods section, describing the Gonzalez protocol:

“The enzyme treatment included orally ingested proteolytic enzymes, nutritional supplements, detoxification, and an organic diet (unaltered from the pilot study). Patients received three pancreatic enzyme and two magnesium citrate capsules with each meal. The patients also took specified numbers of capsules with magnesium citrate and Papaya Plus every 4 hours on an empty stomach. The dose for patients with stage II disease was 69 enzyme capsules, and the dose for patients with stages III or IV was 81 capsules per day. After day 16, patients had a 5-day rest period and then resumed treatment on day 22. Treatment could be adjusted by the physician and could be increased for cancer progression. A diet that required at least 70% of the food to be raw or minimally cooked was required. All food was organic. Prescribed detoxification procedures included coffee enemas twice each day; skin brushing and cleansing; salt and soda baths; and a liver flush, clean sweep, and purging.”

Excuse me? A liver flush? What is that, exactly? And could someone please explain what is meant by “a clean sweep”? And purging? If it’s not an indelicate question, might we be told exactly what that consists of?

How this extraordinary paragraph found its way into print, unchallenged, in the venerable Journal of Clinical Oncology is unfathomable. Why didn’t the editors, or the authors, for that matter, feel that it might be useful – in fact, essential – to (a) append an explanation of exactly what was meant by these terms, and (b) to include some kind of rationale for their use?

And then, of course, there’s the larger question of how the institutional review board at Columbia managed to sidestep the ethical issues inherent in approving a trial that was set up to compare the apples of standard treatment with the oranges of liver flushes and clean sweeps. If there was genuine clinical equipoise here we’re in deep, deep trouble.

You might think that this study, with its damning result, would be the end of it. But you’d be wrong. Gonzalez has written a book, a paranoid, self-exculpatory monologue, a martyr’s manifesto detailing what he perceives as his deliberate persecution at vast public expense by a pernicious cancer industry mafia whose goal is to silence him forever. (Presumably the hit man who got Steve McQueen was no longer available?)

So what are we to make of Gonzalez? Is he a cynical fraud or does he genuinely believe that coffee enemas, skin brushing and massive doses of supplements are capable of holding back the tsunami of cancer?

At the end of the day it hardly matters: either way, he’s a dangerous man.

Rudolf Steiner was a weird guy by any stretch of imagination. He was the founding father of anthroposophy, an esoteric “philosophy” that created a new dimension of obtrusiveness. Not only that, he also dabbled in farming methods, devised an educational technique and created an entire school of health care, called anthroposophical medicine. The leading product in its range of homeopathy-inspired “drugs” is a mistletoe-extract which is, according to Steiner, a cure for cancer. His idea was simple: 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!!!

So, what is more logical than to postulate that extracts from mistletoe are a cure for cancer? Medicine seems simple – particularly, if  you do not understand the first thing about it!

But here comes the odd thing: some ingredients from mistletoe do actually have anti-cancer properties. So, was the old Steiner an intuitive genius who somehow sensed that mistletoe would be a life-saver for cancer patients? Or is all this just pure luck? Or was it perhaps predictable?

Many plants produce molecules that are so toxic that they can kill (cancer) cells, and many conventional cancer drugs were originally derived from plants; the fact that mistletoe has some anti-cancer activity therefore comes as a surprise only to those who have little or no knowledge of phyto-pharmacology.

Ok, mistletoe might have some ingredients which possess pharmacological activity. But to claim that it is a cancer cure is still a huge leap of faith. This fact did not stop promoters of anthroposophical medicine to do just that.

Due to decades of clever promotion, it is now hard in many countries (including for instance Germany) to find cancer patients who have not tried mistletoe; indeed, selling mistletoe preparations to desperate cancer patients has become a mega-business.

But does it actually work?  Do these extracts achieve what proponents advertise?

The claims for mistletoe are essentially twofold:

1) Mistletoe cures cancer.

2) Mistletoe improves the quality of life (QoL) of cancer patients.

The crucial question clearly is: are these claims based on good evidence?

According to our own systematic review, the answer is NO. In 2003, we looked at all the clinical trials and demonstrated that some of the weaker studies implied benefits of mistletoe extracts, particularly in terms of quality of life. None of the methodologically stronger trials exhibited efficacy in terms of quality of life, survival or other outcome measures. The current Cochrane review (of which I am not a co-author) concluded similarly : 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.

But both reviews have one major weakness: they included all of the many available extracts of mistletoe – and one cannot deny that there are considerable differences between them. The market leader in this area is Weleda (avid readers of science blogs might remember that this firm has been mentioned before); they produce ISCADOR, the mistletoe extract that has been tested more than any other such preparation.

Perhaps it would be informative to focus specifically on this product then? A German team from the “Center for Integrative Medicine, Faculty of Health, University of Witten/Herdecke” has done just that; despite the fact that these authors are not really known for their critical analyses of anthroposophical medicine, their conclusion is also cautious: The analyzed studies give some evidence that Iscador treatment might have beneficial short-time effects on QoL-associated dimensions and psychosomatic self-regulation.

So, what is the bottom line? Sceptics would say that almost a century of research without a solid proof of efficacy is well and truly enough; one should now call it a day. Proponents of mistletoe treatment, however, insist: we need more and better studies. Well, there is more! A new RCT of Iscador has just been published.

It included chemotherapy-naive advanced non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patients to assess Iscador’s influence on chemotherapy-related adverse-effects and QoL. Patients with advanced NSCLC were randomised to receive chemotherapy alone or chemotherapy plus Iscador thrice weekly until tumour progression. Chemotherapy consisted of 21-day cycles of carboplatin combined with gemcitabine or pemetrexed. Seventy-two patients were enrolled of whom 65% were in stage IV, and 62% had squamous histology. Median overall survival in both groups was 11 months. Median time to tumour progression was not significantly different between the two groups. Differences in grade 3-4 haematological toxicity were not significant, but more control patients had chemotherapy dose reductions, grade 3-4 non-haematological toxicities, and hospitalisations.

The authors’ conclusion: No effect of Iscador could be found on quality of life or total adverse events. Nevertheless, chemotherapy dose reductions, severe non-haematological side-effects and hospitalisations were less frequent in patients treated with Iscador, warranting further investigation of Iscador as a modifier of chemotherapy-related toxicity.

So, does Steiner’s notion based on the weirdest of intuitions contain some kernel of truth? I am not sure. But for once I do agree with the proponents of mistletoe: we need more and better research to find out.

Acupuncture is not just one single form of therapy, there are dozens of variations of this theme. For instance, acupuncture-points can, according to proponents of this form of treatment, be stimulated in a number of ways: needles, heat (moxibustion), electrical current, laser-light, ultrasound or pressure. In the latter case, the therapy is called acupressure. This therapy is popular and often recommended as a form of self-treatment, for instance, to alleviate nausea and vomiting of all causes.

Chemotherapy-induced nausea/vomiting can normally be successfully treated with standard anti-emetic drugs. Some patients, however, may not respond satisfactorily and others prefer a drug-free option such as acupressure for which there has been encouraging evidence. A brand-new study sheds new light on this issue.

Its objective was to assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of self-administered acupressure using wristbands compared with sham acupressure wristbands and standard care alone in the management of chemotherapy-induced nausea. Secondary objectives included assessment of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the wristbands in relation to vomiting and quality of life and exploration of any age, gender and emetogenic risk effects. The trial was conducted in outpatient chemotherapy clinics in three regions in the UK involving 14 different cancer units/centres. Chemotherapy-naïve cancer patients were included receiving chemotherapy of low, moderate and high emetogenic risk. The intervention were acupressure wristbands pressing the P6 point (anterior surface of the forearm), sham-wrist bands providing no pressure on acupuncture-points or no wrist-bands at all; all three groups had standard care in addition. The main outcome measures were the Rhodes Index for Nausea/Vomiting, the Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer (MASCC) Antiemesis Tool and the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy – General (FACT-G). At baseline participants also completed measures of anxiety/depression, nausea/vomiting expectation and expectations from using the wristbands.

In total, 500 patients were randomised (166 standard care, 166 sham acupressure + standard care, and 168 acupressure + standard care). Data were available for 361 participants for the primary outcome. The primary outcome analysis (nausea in cycle 1) revealed no differences between the three arms. Women responded more favourably to the use of sham acupressure wristbands than men. No significant differences were detected in relation to vomiting outcomes, anxiety and quality of life. Some transient adverse effects were reported, including tightness in the area of the wristbands, feeling uncomfortable when wearing them and minor swelling in the wristband area.There were no statistically significant cost differences associated with the use of real acupressure bands.

In total, 26 patients took part in qualitative interviews. The qualitative data suggested that participants perceived the wristbands (both real and sham) as effective and helpful in managing their nausea during chemotherapy.

The authors concluded that there were no statistically significant differences between the three arms in terms of nausea, vomiting and quality of life.

Intriguingly, this study was published in two different journals; and the second article reporting the identical data concluded that no clear recommendations can be made about the use of acupressure wristbands in the management of chemotherapy-related nausea and vomiting.

A further equally new study tested acupressure for post-operative nausea/vomiting. One hundred and thirty-four healthy, non-smoking women scheduled for breast surgery were randomised either to P6 stimulation or to sham control. Wristbands were applied and covered with a dressing before induction of anaesthesia. Follow-up was carried out three times within 24 h postoperative. Primary outcomes were postoperative nausea and/or vomiting.

One hundred and twelve patients completed the study. There were no statistically significant differences in the incidence of nausea or vomiting. Approximately, one third of the patients reported adverse-effects caused by the wristband, for example, redness, swelling and tenderness.

The authors of this trial concluded as follows: We did not find the Vital-Band effective in preventing either nausea or vomiting after operation in women undergoing breast surgery.

There has been quite a bit of previous research on acupressure. The most recent summary included 2 meta-analyses, 6 systematic reviews and 39 RCTs of acupressure for various conditions. Its authors stated that the strongest evidence was for pain (particularly dysmenorrhoea, lower back and labour), post-operative nausea and vomiting.

So, is acupressure effective in reducing nausea and vomiting or not? The evidence is contradictory to a degree that is baffling. If we look closer at the existing trials, we are likely to find that the more rigorous studies and those published by researchers who do not have an axe to grind tend to produce negative findings. I am therefore not convinced that acupressure has any effects beyond placebo.

Postoperative ileus (POI), the phenomenon that after an operation the intestines tend to be inactive for a few days, can cause intense pain and thus contributes significantly to human suffering. It also prolongs hospital stay and increases the risks of post-operative complications. There is no known effective treatment for POI.

In China, POI is often treated with acupuncture, and due to this fact acupuncture became known in the West: James Reston, a journalist who accompanied Nixon on his first trip to China, had to have an appendectomy in a Beijing hospital, he subsequently suffered from POI, was treated with acupuncture and moxibustion, experienced symptom-relief, and subsequently wrote about it in the New York Times. This was the beginning of the present acupuncture-boom.

Since then, thousands of acupuncture trials have been published but, intriguingly, very few have tested the effectiveness of acupuncture for POI. Now researchers from the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York have conducted a randomized, sham-controlled trial to test whether acupuncture reduces POI more effectively than sham acupuncture.

Ninety colon cancer patients undergoing elective colectomy were randomized to receive 30 min of true or sham acupuncture twice daily during their first three postoperative days. GI-3 (the later of the following two events: time that the patient first tolerated solid food, AND time that the patient first passed flatus OR a bowel movement) and GI-2 (the later of the following two events: time patient first tolerated solid food AND time patient first passed a bowel movement) were determined. Pain, nausea, vomiting, and use of pain medications were evaluated daily for the first three postoperative days. Eighty-one patients received the allocated intervention: 39 the true acupuncture and 42 the sham acupuncture. The mean time to GI-3 was 149 hours and 146 hours for the acupuncture group and the sham acupuncture group. No significant differences were found between groups for secondary endpoints.

The authors’ conclusion was clear: True acupuncture as provided in this study did not reduce POI more significantly than sham acupuncture.

So, did a mere misunderstanding start the present acupuncture boom? POI inevitably normalises with time. Did the journalist just imagine that acupuncture helped, while nature cured the condition? It would seem so, according to this study. But perhaps things are not just black or white. Almost at the same time as the New York trial, another study was emerged.

Researchers from Hong Kong conducted an RCT with 165 patients undergoing elective laparoscopic surgery for colonic and upper rectal cancer. Patients were assigned randomly to receive electroacupuncture (n = 55) or sham acupuncture (n = 55), once daily from postoperative days 1-4, or no acupuncture (n = 55). The primary outcome was time to defecation. Secondary outcomes included postoperative analgesic requirement, time to ambulation, and length of hospital stay. The results showed that patients who received electroacupuncture had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received no acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 122.1 ± 53.5 h) and length of hospital stay (6.5 ± 2.2 vs 8.5 ± 4.8 days). Patients who received electroacupuncture also had a shorter time to defecation than patients who received sham acupuncture (85.9 ± 36.1 vs 107.5 ± 46.2 h). Electroacupuncture was more effective than no or sham acupuncture in reducing postoperative analgesic requirement and time to ambulation.

The Chinese researchers’ conclusion is equally clear: electroacupuncture reduced the duration of postoperative ileus, time to ambulation, and postoperative analgesic requirement, compared with no or sham acupuncture, after laparoscopic surgery for colorectal cancer.

The only other trial I know in this area failed to show that acupuncture shortens POI. What should we make of these data? A systematic review would be nice, of course, but, to the best of my knowledge, none is currently available.

Is this a question of everyone being able to pick and chose the evidence they like? Is it a question of who we trust, the researchers in New York or those in China? Is it a question of where the treatment was done authentically? Is it a question of critically analysing which study had the higher risks of bias? Or is it a question of simply saying that two negative studies are more than one positive trial?

Confused? Me too, a little!

Whatever answers we chose, several things seems fairly certain to me. It would be wrong to say that there is good evidence for acupuncture as a treatment of POI. And the acupuncture-boom that ensued after Reston’s article was to a very large degree built on a simple misunderstanding: POI is a condition that resolves literally into thin air whether we treat it or not.

Lymph oedema in the arms or legs is a frequent complication after lymph-node dissections for cancer. Treatment or prevention can be difficult, and the results  are often unsatisfactory. Consequently, the burden of suffering of cancer patients affected by this problem is immense.

Amongst several options, a little-known massage technique, called lymph-drainage (or lymphatic drainage, LD), is sometimes recommended. It consists of gentle manual movements which lightly push the lymph fluid through the lymphatic vessels that eventually enter into the blood circulation. During a session of lymph-drainage, a specially trained massage therapist lightly moves his or her hands along the lymph vessels to facilitate the lymph flow. The treatment is agreeable and relaxing, but does it really reduce the oedema?

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of RCTs evaluated the effectiveness of LD in the prevention and treatment of breast-cancer related lymph-oedema. The primary outcome for prevention was the incidence of postoperative lymph-oedema. The outcome for management of  was a reduction in oedema volume.

In total, 10 RCTs with altogether 566 patients were identified. Two studies evaluating the preventive outcome of LD found no significant difference in the incidence of lymph-oedema between the LD and standard treatments. Seven studies assessed the reduction in arm volume, and found no significant difference between the LD and standard treatments.

The authors conclusion was negative about the value of LD: The current evidence from RCTs does not support the use of LD in preventing or treating lymph-oedema. However, clinical and statistical inconsistencies between the various studies confounded our evaluation of the effect of LD on breast-cancer-related lymph-oedema.

Perhaps a brand-new clinical trial which had not been included in the above assessment would have persuaded the authors to be a little more optimistic. This study evaluated the effectiveness of LD in the prevention of lymph-oedema after treatment of breast cancer. The study-population consisted of 67 women, who had undergone surgery for breast cancer. From the second day of surgery, 33 randomly chosen women were given LD. The control group consisted of 34 women who did not receive LD. Measurements of the volumes of both arms were taken before surgery and on days 2, 7, 14, and at 3 and 6 months after surgery.

Among the women who did not have LD, a significant increase in the arm volume on the operated side was observed after 6 month. There was no statistically significant  increase in the volume of the upper limb on the operated side in women who underwent LD.

The authors conclude that regardless of the surgery type and the number of the lymph nodes removed, LD effectively prevented lymph-oedema of the arm on the operated side. Even in high risk breast cancer treatments (operation plus irradiation), LD was demonstrated to be effective against arm volume increase. Even though confirmatory studies are needed, this study demonstrates that LD administered early after operation for breast cancer should be considered for the prevention of lymph-oedema.

So, does LD reduce oedema or not? This does not seem to be such a difficult question that it should take decades to resolve! And who would doubt that it is an important one? Lymph-oedema has the potential to seriously impede the quality of life of many patients, and it can even contribute to unnecessary mortality. The fact that the few available studies are too small and too weak to generate reliable results is disappointing and shines a dim light on the supposedly patient-centred research in oncology, in my view.

The concept of LD is plausible, at least some of the findings from clinical trials are encouraging, and the problem of lymph-oedema is both prevalent and relevant. So what is stopping us from funding a large, well-designed and definitive study?

In the UK, we have about 150000 practitioners of Spiritual Healing (SH). They treat all sorts of conditions claiming to channel ‘healing energy’ into the patient’s body which enables him/her to heal itself. The plausibility of SH is very close to zero and, despite numerous trials, its clinical effectiveness remains unproven. A new and, in my view, remarkable study of SH was aimed at investigating whether “SH could support patients with breast cancer”.

Spiritual Healing was provided by 4 healers registered with the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. Twelve patients with breast cancer undergoing long-term hormone treatment and experiencing its adverse-effects as onerous, self-referred themselves and were given ten weekly sessions of approximately 40 minutes each. Data collected included participant’s daily records, direct observations noted by the healers, the researcher’s field diary and a one-to-one semi-structured interview.

The alleged positive effects of SH included alleviation of the physical adverse-effects of their treatment, increased energy levels, enhanced well-being, emotional relaxation, and re-engagement with pre-cancer activities. Although one participant admitted considering a drug holiday prior to joining the study, none of the participants felt tempted to stop their hormonal treatments while receiving SH. The authors concluded that “these qualitative findings indicate that SH has the potential to support patients with breast cancer in the maintenance of their long-term orthodox treatments. Further research is needed to test SH as a cost-effective complementary therapy, for those undergoing long-term cancer treatments.”

As I already mentioned, I think this study is remarkable. Having done quite a bit of research into SH myself, I know how bizarre this intervention truly is. A typical treatment session might be with the patient lying on a couch in a relaxing atmosphere, often accompanied by soothing background music; the healer would talk gently but very little to enable the patient to be comfortable and relax; the SH itself might be performed by the healer moving his/her hands at a distance over the body of the patient; the healer would explain that this may cause the sensation of warmth as the ‘healing energy’ enters the body. Altogether, the experience is exotic to say the least.

It is therefore not surprising that SH generates a host of non-specific effects, including the most enormous placebo-response I have ever witnessed in any clinical trial which I have been involved in. I am mentioning this, of course, to point out that the above-noted effects are entirely compatible with those of placebo. As the study has no control group, there is no way of knowing what the effects of SH per se might have been. The fact that patients self-referred themselves to SH would only amplify this placebo-response. In the discussion of the paper, we find a further interesting pointer regarding patients’ prior experience with conventional health care professionals: “participants felt they were left to cope alone as their side-effects were trivialized.”  This seems to suggest that the group of patients were indeed highly selected and all had suffered badly from previous experiences of poorly administered heath care. Thus their expectations of SH were probably high which, in turn, would exaggerate the placebo-response even further.

All of these phenomena might well be fascinating and could provide ample material for relevant research. They deserve to be analysed carefully and discussed openly and critically. Unfortunately none of this happened in the present study. The authors do not even consider the possibility that the observed effects could be related to anything else than their SH. Their stated aim to investigate whether SH supports cancer patients is not even approached; the authors simply assume a cause-effect relationship without demonstrating one. I find this is more than just a missed opportunity; in my view, it is pseudo-science. And this is the reason why I find this study remarkable.

Many cancer patients will suffer from severe, debilitating fatigue during the course of their illness. The exact cause of this common symptom is not entirely clear. Most likely it is due to a combination of the cancer and the treatments used to cure it. Managing cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is thus an important part of the palliative and supportive care of cancer patients. Acupuncture is often advocated for this purpose and many centres use it routinely. The question therefore is, does it work?

The most recent trial on this subject was aimed at assessing the effectiveness of maintenance acupuncture in the management of CRF; acupuncture or self-acupuncture/self-needling was compared with no such treatment. Breast cancer patients who previously had received acupuncture were randomized to have 4 acupuncturist-delivered weekly sessions, 4 self-administered weekly acupuncture sessions (self-needling); or no acupuncture at all. The primary outcome-measure was general fatigue, while mood, quality of life and safety served as secondary endpoints. In total, 197 patients were randomized: 65 to therapist-delivered sessions, 67 to self-acupuncture/self-needling and 65 to no further acupuncture. The results failed to demonstrate significant inter-group differences in any of the parameters evaluated. The authors concluded that “maintenance acupuncture did not yield important improvements beyond those observed after an initial clinic-based course of acupuncture“.

But this is just one single of several available studies. Acupuncture-fans might suspect me of cherry-picking a largely negative study. If we want a fair verdict, we must consider the totality of the evidence. The aim of our systematic review was therefore to critically evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture (AT) for CRF based on all the trial data available to us.

Fourteen databases were searched from their respective inception to November 2012. Randomized clinical trials (RCTs) of AT for the treatment of CRF were considered for inclusion. The risk of bias/methodological quality was assessed using the method suggested by the Cochrane Collaboration. Seven RCTs met the eligibility criteria. Most were small pilot studies with serious methodological flaws. Four of them showed effectiveness of AT or AT in addition to usual care (UC) over sham AT, UC, enhanced UC, or no intervention for alleviating CRF. Three RCTs failed to demonstrate an effect of AT over sham treatment.

Our conclusion had to be cautious: “Overall, the quantity and quality of RCTs included in the analysis were too low to draw meaningful conclusions. Even in the positive trials, it remained unclear whether the observed outcome was due to specific effects of AT or nonspecific effects of care. Further research is required to investigate whether AT demonstrates specific effects on CRF

There will, of course, be those who claim that no trial evidence is needed in this case; if a cancer-patient benefits from the treatment, she should have it regardless of whether it works as a placebo or has effects beyond that. I do sympathize with this attitude but should point out that there are a number of points to consider when making it:

1) Acupuncture is not risk-free.

2) There are other treatments against CRF; if we blindly advocate acupuncture, we might not offer the best option to our patients.

3) If we spend our limited resources on acupuncture, we might not afford treatments which are more effective.

4) If we are happy using acupuncture because it conveys a sizable placebo-effect, how will we make progress in finding treatments that are more effective?

It is therefore difficult to decide whether or not to recommend acupuncture for CRF. There are some arguments for both sides. Skeptics or critical thinkers or clinicians adhering to the principles of evidence-based medicine are unlikely to condone it, and some people might accuse them for cruelly  and heartlessly denying severely ill patients help which they so badly need. Personally, I fail to see what is cruel or heartless in insisting that these patients receive the treatment which demonstrably works best – and that does not seem to be acupuncture.

Many cancer patients use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), mostly as an adjunct to conventional cancer therapies to improve the symptoms of the disease or to alleviate the side-effects of the often harsh cancer-therapy. The hope is that this approach leads to less suffering and perhaps even longer survival – but is this really so?

In a recently published study, Korean researchers evaluated whether CAM-use influenced the survival and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) of terminal cancer patients. From July 2005 to October 2006, they prospectively studied a cohort study of 481 cancer patients. During a follow-up of 163.8 person-years, they identified 466 deceased patients. Their multivariate analyses of these data showed that, compared with non-users, CAM-users did not have better survival. Using mind-body interventions or prayer was even associated with significantly worse survival. CAM users reported significantly worse cognitive functioning and more fatigue than nonusers. In sub-group analyses, users of alternative medical treatments, prayer, vitamin supplements, mushrooms, or rice and cereal reported significantly worse HRQOL. The authors conclude that “CAM did not provide any definite survival benefit, CAM users reported clinically significant worse HRQOLs.”

Most proponents of CAM would find this result counter-intuitive and might think it is a one-off coincidental result or a fluke. But, in fact, it is not; similar data have been reported before. For instance, a Norwegian study from 2003 examined the association between CAM-use and cancer survival. Survival data were obtained with a follow-up of 8 years for 515 cancer patients. A total of 112 patients used CAM. During the follow-up period, 350 patients died. Death rates were higher in CAM-users (79%) than in those who did not use CAM (65%). The hazard ratio of death for CAM-use compared with no use was 1.30. The authors of this paper concluded that “use of CAM seems to predict a shorter survival from cancer.”

I imagine that, had the results been the opposite (i.e. showing that CAM-users live longer and have a better quality of life), most CAM-enthusiasts would not have hesitated in claiming a cause effect relationship (i.e. that the result was due to the use of alternative medicine). Critical thinkers, however, are more careful, after all, correlation is not causation! So, how can these findings be explained?

There are, of course, several possibilities, for example:

1) Some patients might use ineffective alternative therapies instead of effective cancer treatments thus shortening their life and reducing their quality of life.

2) Other patients might employ alternative treatments which cause direct harm; for this, there are numerous options; for instance, if they self-medicate St John’s Wort, they would decrease the effectiveness of many mainstream medications, including some cancer drugs.

3) Patients who elect to use alternative medicine as an adjunct to their conventional cancer treatment might, on average, be more sick than those who stay clear of alternative medicine.

The available data do not allow us to say which explanation applies. But things are rarely black or white, and I would not be surprised, if a complex combination of all three possibilities came closest to the truth.

Since weeks I have been searching for new (2013) studies which actually report POSITIVE results. I like good news as much as the next man but, in my line of business, it seems awfully hard to come by. Therefore I am all the more delighted to present these two new articles to my readers.

The first study is a randomized trial with patients suffering from metastatic cancer who received one of three interventions: massage therapy, no-touch intervention or usual care. Primary outcomes were pain, anxiety, and alertness; secondary outcomes were quality of life and sleep. The mean number of massage therapy sessions per patient was 2.8.

The results show significant improvement in the quality of life of the patients who received massage therapy after 1-week follow-up which was not observed in either of the other groups. Unfortunately, the difference was not sustained at 1 month. There were also trends towards improvement in pain and sleep of the patients after massage. No serious adverse events were noted.

The authors conclude that “providing therapeutic massage improves the quality of life at the end of life for patients and may be associated with further beneficial effects, such as improvement in pain and sleep quality. Larger randomized controlled trials are needed to substantiate these findings“.

The second study examined the effectiveness of a back massage for improving sleep quality in 60 postpartum women suffering from poor sleep. They were  randomized to either the intervention or the control group. Participants in both groups received the same care except for the back massages. The intervention group received one 20-minutes back massage at the same time each evening for 5 consecutive days by a certified massage therapist. The outcome measure was the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI). The results showed that the changes in mean PSQI were significantly lower in the intervention group than in controls indicating a positive effect of massage on sleep quality.

The authors’ conclusions were clear: “an intervention involving back massage in the postnatal period significantly improved the quality of sleep.

Where I was trained (Germany), massage is not deemed to be an alternative but an entirely mainstream treatment. Despite this fact, there is precious little evidence to demonstrate that it is effective. Our own research has found encouraging evidence for a range of conditions, including autism, cancer palliation, constipation, DOMS and back pain. In addition, we have shown that massage is not entirely free of risks but that its potential for harm is very low (some might say that this was never in question but it is good to have a bit more solid evidence).

The new studies are, of course, not without flaws; this can hardly be expected in an area where logistical, financial and methodological problems abound. The fact that there are many different approaches to massage does not make things easier either. The new evidence is nevertheless encouraging and seems to suggest that massage has relaxing effects which are clinically relevant. In my view, massage is a therapy worth considering for more rigorous research.

Acupuncture remains a highly controversial treatment: its mechanism of action is less than clear and the clinical results are equally unconvincing. Of course, one ought to differentiate between different conditions; the notion that acupuncture is a panacea is most certainly nonsense.

In many countries, acupuncture is being employed mostly in the management of pain, and it is in this area where the evidence is perhaps most encouraging. Yet, even here the evidence from the most rigorous clinical trials seems to suggest that much, if not all of the effects of acupuncture might be due to placebo.

Moreover, we ought to be careful with generalisations and ask what type of pain? One very specific pain is that caused by aromatase inhibitors (AI), a medication frequently prescribed to women suffering from breast cancer. Around 50 % of these patients complain of AI-associated musculoskeletal symptoms (AIMSS) and 15 % discontinue treatment because of these complaints. So, can acupuncture help these women?

A recent randomised, sham-controlled trial tested whether acupuncture improves AIMSS. Postmenopausal women with early stage breast cancer, experiencing AIMSS were randomized to eight weekly real or sham acupuncture sessions. The investigators evaluated changes in the Health Assessment Questionnaire Disability Index (HAQ-DI) and pain visual analog scale (VAS). Serum estradiol, β-endorphin, and proinflammatory cytokine concentrations were also measured pre and post-intervention. In total, 51 women were enrolled of whom 47 were evaluable (23 randomized to real and 24 to sham acupuncture).

Baseline characteristics turned out to be balanced between groups with the exception of a higher HAQ-DI score in the real acupuncture group. The results failed to show a statistically significant difference in reduction of HAQ-DI or VAS between the two groups. Following eight weekly treatments, a significant reduction of IL-17 was noted in both groups. No significant modulation was seen in estradiol, β-endorphin, or other proinflammatory cytokine concentrations in either group. No difference in AIMSS changes between real and sham acupuncture was seen.

Even though this study was not large, it was rigorously executed and well-reported. As many acupuncturists claim that their treatment alleviates pain and as many women suffering from AM-induced pain experience benefit, acupuncture advocates will nevertheless claim that the findings of this study are wrong, misleading or irrelevant. The often remarkable discrepancy between experience and evidence will again be the subject of intense discussions. How can a tiny trial overturn the experience of so many?

The answer is: VERY EASILY! In fact, the simplest explanation is that both are correct. The trial was well-done and its findings are thus likely to be true. The experience of patients is equally true – yet it relies not on the effects of acupuncture per se, but on the context in which it is given. In simple language, the effects patients experience after acupuncture are due to a placebo-response.

This is the only simple explanation which tallies with both the evidence and the experience. Once we think about it carefully, we realise that acupuncture is highly placebo-genic:

It is exotic.

It is invasive.

It is slightly painful.

It involves time with a therapist.

It involves touch.

If anyone had the task to develop a treatment that maximises placebo-effects, he could not come up with a better intervention!

Ahhh, will acupuncture-fans say, this means that acupuncture is a helpful therapy. I don’t care how it works, as long as it does help. Did we not just cover this issues in some detail? Indeed we did –  and I do not feel like re-visiting the three fallacies which underpin this sentence again.

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