Respectful Insolence

I’m away from regular blogging for a couple of weeks, and what do I find when I finally get back into the swing of things?

Dangerous cancer quackery published on Mike Adams’ Newstarget site, that’s what.

I know, I know. I shouldn’t be surprised, and I’m not. It’s all par for the course for Newstarget, where evidence-based medicine is viewed as nothing but a conspiracy of big pharma, evil scientific doctors, and the FDA to poison patients against their will. Truly, Mike Adams has decided to go head-to-head with Whale.to and Dr. Mercola for the title of most ridiculous website ostensibly about medicine. (If Mike Adams keeps it up, soon NewsTarget will look like Life Technology!) Of course, all three are really about promoting non-evidence-based medicine over evidence-based medicine and castigating conventional medicine and any regulatory bodies that try to prevent the selling of unproven and/or ineffective woo and thus interfere unduly with their “freedom” to separate the credulous from their money.


As bad as NewsTarget was three weeks ago, before I left, it’s taken a noticeable step downhill in the interim, a deterioration due to a group of “Citizen Journalists” whom Adams invited to submit articles to NewsTarget for Google AdSense revenue brought in by the page views. (I wonder if Adams would accept one of my articles for publication.) Last night, I came across a doozy of an article submitted by these “citizen journalists,” in this case by one herbalist named Leslee Dru Browning, entitled For Successful Healing, Cancer Must Be Treated as a Multi-System Disease.

As a cancer surgeon, I think I definitely lost a point or two of IQ reading this article.

Naturally, as with many altie articles, it starts out with a horrific description of “conventional” treatments for cancer:

You have just been diagnosed with cancer. Your oncologist is pushing you to begin chemotherapy immediately. You know that chemotherapy will make you sick, your hair fall out and leave you completely debilitated and dependent on someone to care for you. You will suffer severe side-effects that may leave your nervous system damaged, weaken your bones or damage your heart. You also realize that chances are your cancer will return after months of grueling treatments. You think maybe you would like to try alternative medicine but your oncologist is against it and you know of others who tried that route and died. What you may not know is this: Cancer can be healed naturally, and is done so every day, but it takes more than a multivitamin, a few supplements and a daily bowl of blueberries to accomplish complete healing.

Ah, yes, the requisite terrifying description of the horrors of cancer treatment. Of course, these days for many cancers the treatment is nowhere near as horrible as the above would lead you to agree. However, for some cancers, sadly, the treatment still is very hard to endure and has risks of serious complications. From the evidence, we know that these treatments, depending on the tumor, can either cure the cancer, stave off death from cancer by varying amounts of time, or, in the case of incurable cancer, palliate symptoms. Alties like Browning seem to think that oncologists are insensitive to the side effects of the treatment that they prescribe. They also seem to miss the fact that, if we could come up with less toxic regimens that have the same efficacy, we most certainly would. Indeed, doing just that is a major focus of current research in oncology, and we have made considerable progress, as is evident if one compares many of the regimens from 20 or 30 years ago to what we use now. I will give her credit for one thing though, at least she realizes that it will take “more” than a few supplements and some blueberries to cure cancer. I suppose this is her idea of how to show that she is “reasonable” and not making overblown claims for what her woo can do.

Whenever I hear an herbalist or other alternative medicine practitioner claim that “cancer can be healed naturally, and is done so every day,” a question immediately comes to mind: Just where are all these cancer survivors who healed their cancer “naturally”? Really. If people are doing this every day, presumably there should be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of such cancer survivors who eschewed surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation in favor of the sorts of therapies that Browning advocates. A second question comes to mind: If these therapies are as miraculously effective as their advocates like to claim, then it wouldn’t take a very large randomized clinical trial at all to demonstrate their efficacy. Indeed, if they can cure people from 100% fatal diseases at a high rate, then it wouldn’t even take a randomized clinical trial to demonstrate the potency of their methods. So where are those trials? Why aren’t they in the literature? I can’t find them.

I know, I know. “Healers” like Ms. Browning are too busy “healing” people to bother with such petty concerns as detailed documentation of their cases, treatments, and responses to therapy or to do a clinical study. Besides, Big Pharma is keeping them down because “they” don’t want you to know about these “natural cures.” Just ask Mike Adams.

What I don’t understand is how someone like Ms. Browning expects to be taken seriously when her “understanding” of the causes of cancer harkens back to the days of bleeding and leeches, with a more modern misconception of unspecified “toxins” as the cause of all disease tacked on to this ancient mumbo-jumbo:

As an herbalist who has spent many years helping cancer patients heal themselves I have come to the conclusion, like many herbalists before me, that cancer is a result of what I call ‘poor blood’ – by poor I mean the blood is not in optimal condition. Since the blood circulates through every organ in the body and through every cell, it only makes sense that toxins in the blood contaminate the entire body. Blood becomes less than optimal when it is not nourished properly. Without proper nourishment to the blood the body will not survive. It may survive for awhile, even years, but ultimately, the body will suffer from starvation to organs which ultimately causes illness with cancer often resulting as the eventual killer. Therefore, the fundamental goal in curing cancer is not only to restore the blood but to also treat the lymph glands, kidneys, liver, bowel, and bones by nourishment found in herbs. Herbs are effective in healing the body because they are modulators and understand the intricacy of the body’s innate healing capabilities. Their role is to enhance and direct the body’s various systems to function optimally thereby restoring health without doing harm.

Herbs “understand the intricacies of the body’s innate healing capabilities”? I never realized that herbs possess such intelligence! As for the cause of cancer being the blood not being in “optimal condition,” let’s examine the implications of that statement. What, specifically, is “optimal” condition for the blood? How do we determine if a person’s blood is in “optimal” condition? Browning doesn’t say. She does, however, have a ludicrously complicated regimen of at least four different tonics requiring at least 40 different herbs total (around 10 per concoction) to make. Apparently, Browning advocates combining them into some sort of liquid potion. By comparison, many conventional medicines appear to constitute a less onerous regimen than this. I suppose that this is also her way of recognizing that cancer is a complex and difficult disease to treat; it’s just unfortunate that there’s no evidence that her regimen does anything to “heal cancer naturally.”

Not surprisingly, Browning seems to adhere to a common misconception that the waste in our colons accumulates and slowly poisons us, causing all manner of diseases if we do not regularly “cleanse” it:

Now we look to the colon. The purpose of the colon as an eliminative organ is to remove waste material by mass muscular contraction called peristalsis. In my experience I have found that nearly 75% of cancer patients have suffered from some form of chronic constipation during their lives. I consider constipation when the bowels do not move at least once a day. When the bowels do not move daily poisons can accumulate in the colon. Depending on where the poison accumulates in the colon will depend on where cancer develops for there is a point on the colon for every organ and system in the body. Any of these points, if clogged, toxic, or full of old fecal matter, will eventually bring illness to that part of the body the colon signifies. The bowel must be swept clean of all debris. Some people will need a gentle nudge while others require a greater nudge.

Never mind that in the vast majority of cases the very “cleansing agents” used to “cleanse” the colon or liver cause the apparent waste that is touted as evidence of the success of the procedure.

Looking at this particular article, I find just what it is that bothers me about so much of alternative medicine. All too much of it is based on concepts that were developed in prescientific times, hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. This was long before science started to understand the causes of many major diseases and used that knowledge to develop effective treatments. Consequently, we see appeals to “poor blood” and unnamed “toxins” by Browning, to an unspecified (and undetectable) “life force” by Reiki therapists and a wide variety of other alternative medicine practitioners, to the scientifically undemonstrated “memory of water” by homeopathists, and to unmappable “meridians” in acupuncture. These days, however, science can’t be denied, even by the antiscientific. Consequently, these concepts are now tarted up with distortions of real science, such as fallacious appeals to quantum theory or claims that by “zapping” parasites one can cure all cancer, as Hulda Clark likes to do. Some alternative medicine, primarily that based on medicines derived from herbs, may have value because some herbs contain real medicines. However, no combination of herbs that any herbalist, naturopath, or other alternative practitioner has ever advocated has ever been shown to be able to “heal cancer naturally,” unless you count the use of Taxol, which is derived from the bark of the Yew tree.

Wait. Taxol is evil chemotherapy, a tool of the Devil–I mean, Big Pharma. Never mind.

More galling, we as practitioners of scientific medicine are expected to respect these assertions, much as “intelligent design” creationists seem to expect biologists to take them seriously. I’ve always said that I consider the distinction between “alternative” and “conventional” medicine to be a false dichotomy. The true dichotomy is between medicine that has evidence to support its efficacy and safety and medicine that does not, or, worse, that has evidence suggesting that it doesn’t work and isn’t safe. Mike Adam, through his NewsTarget site, has always been an advocate of the latter form of medicine. Now, with the addition of his new “citizen journalists,” it looks as though Adams’ site has just gotten a whole lot kookier. It’s clearly poised to turn the stupid up to 11 and beyond and knock Whale.to and Dr. Mercola out of the ring in the competition to post the single largest repository of health misinformation on the Internet.

Comments

  1. #1 Bryn
    September 12, 2007

    Unfortunately, “the days of bleeding and leeches” are not behind us. I personally know someone who sees an acupuncturist several times a month who bleeds this individual under his tongue to “get rid of bad blood”. He knows it’s bad because it’s “dark”. And no, trying to explain the difference between oxygenated and non-oxygenated blood has no effect. After all, acupuncture has been around for centuries and it never would have survived…well, you know the drill.

  2. #2 bug_girl
    September 12, 2007

    Egad.
    I think I lost an IQ point vicariously. What a load of tripe.
    *heavy sigh*

  3. #3 Joe
    September 12, 2007

    Concerning the invisible hordes cured by Alties, John Diamond mentioned this in his book “Snake Oil.”
    http://www.amazon.com/Snake-Oil-John-Diamond/dp/0099428334/ref=sr_1_33/002-3231758-0948863?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1189604311&sr=1-33
    Diamond was a British journalist who wrote columns about his incurable cancer. He said he got thousands of letters from people saying that medical therapy had kept them functioning well, and they were several years post-diagnosis. He noted that he never received even one letter from anyone claiming long-term survival because of any Altie treatment. Statistically, such people should exist (making the claim, not actually benefitting from quackery); but they are too few to notice.

  4. #4 Jack
    September 12, 2007

    There are no studies on it because those of us who have both the interest in the discipline AND the scientific honesty to want to do a study don’t have and can’t get an appropriate PhD, so even if we did do one nothing we said would be worth anything. And those people who do have PhDs are mostly more interested in abusing it in order to bilk people. Not everyone; there have been enough empiric studies done on most of the herbs I use, at least, to demonstrate their use, but not nearly enough attention has been paid to them and I honestly wish that would change.

    It’s absolutely foolish to dismiss the entire notion of herbal healing entirely just because of this kind of idiocy. Acorus calamus is an excellent example; next time you have a toothache, apply powdered root thereof to the cavity and be amazed. There may not be a proven cure for cancer yet, but any number of other ailments can be treated, and just because we haven’t found it yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, after all. Many, many plants contain alkaloids and others which are active both in the brain and other parts of the body. I can’t wait for the healing potential of plants like cat’s claw to come to mainstream attention. They *do* work.

    Do it yourself, if you have the time. Look deeper than the usual pap, and you’ll find truth.

  5. #5 Orac
    September 12, 2007

    Jack:

    Give me a break.

    I did not “dismiss the entire notion of herbal healing.” I dismissed the specific notion of herbal healing described by Browning. I dismissed it because it is scientifically without basis. Indeed, the rationale behind much of it is based on concepts that have long been superseded by scientifically verifiable mechanisms of disease and because there is no evidence to support it.

    Certainly herbs can be medicines. After all, “conventional” medicine derived many of its best drugs from plants, drugs like Taxol or digoxin. What I reject, at least until someone shows me convincing evidence otherwise, is the claim that cancer can be “healed” naturally through these herbs. Show me convincing evidence that a regimen like Browning’s can cure cancer, and I’ll probably start to change my mind. Of course, I wouldn’t accept her description of the way these things work (herbs being “understanding the intricacies” of your body, for instance), because, quite frankly, it’s a load of crap, but I would take seriously the contention that these herbs have highly desirable pharmacologic properties.

    As for your excuses why herbalists and naturopaths don’t do research to demonstrate the efficacy of their treatments, well, they’re nothing but a crock of self-pitying B.S. for which I have no patience or sympathy. For example, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the NIH, for instance, funds a lot of such studies and has a budget of over $120 million a year. Real clinical investigators don’t make such whiny excuses when they can’t get their studies funded.

    If herbalists, naturopaths, Reiki practitioners, etc., want to be taken seriously, they need to stop whining and get cracking.

  6. #6 khan
    September 12, 2007

    Depending on where the poison accumulates in the colon will depend on where cancer develops for there is a point on the colon for every organ and system in the body.

    Fecal reflexology?
    —————————————–
    A question:
    Is there any sound medical reason for any type of internal ‘detoxifying’ or ‘cleansing’?

    Or is it all buzzwords and ancient superstitions?

  7. #7 Ruth
    September 12, 2007

    Jack-

    What you want to study is pharmcognosy which is taught in every pharmacology/med chem department I have been affiliated with. Natural products chemistry is interesting, untestable hand waving about the healing power of nature is not.

  8. #8 Joe
    September 12, 2007

    Khan asked “Is there any sound medical reason for any type of internal ‘detoxifying’ or ‘cleansing’?”

    Use the search function on this blog and you should find several articles (try various keywords). You can do the same searching at http://www.quackwatch.org

  9. #9 Joe
    September 12, 2007

    I guess I should have directly answered Khan’s question- no. Those are old notions that were scientifically discredited and reject by medicine around 80 years ago.

  10. #10 justawriter
    September 12, 2007

    Slightly OT but Ars Technica is is taking on homeopathy. I wish them luck.

  11. #11 Melissa G
    September 12, 2007

    Jack–

    I highly recommend you pursue a PhD in plant physiology! It’s an exciting field of study which will give you fascinating insight into the biochemical mechanisms of how plants grow, how they produce their bioactive secondary compounds, and how certain herbs are able to act upon human physiology! It will help you to tease out the facts from the myths in your ongoing study of herbs, and you will learn great experimental design techniques by which you can evaluate herbal extracts for antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal properties, and then be able to see which results are statistically powerful. Also, if you’re into nutrition, you can learn how to work with plant metabolisms to increase their yield of certain vitamins, minerals, secondary compounds, or proteins! It is awesome, and it’s tremendously satisfying work knowing your research is helping people and the environment.

    Grad school is hell at times, but seriously, it also gave me some of the most fun I’ve ever had.

  12. #12 Thony C.
    September 12, 2007

    Jack

    Your claims are pure bovine manure. I got very interested in herbs because I am a passionate cook and love experimenting with flavourings. I have an extensive library of books on every conceivable form of herbs and spices and because it forms a large part of the literature I also have several books that cover the medicinal use of herbs. These books give detailed descriptions of the chemical constituents of the herbs, their medical effects and the areas in which they can be applied. All of this is backed up by multiple references to the professional and highly reputable scientific journals where the research articles were published from which the information was obtained. The research that you claim cannot be carried out has been going on for years and is still continuing.

  13. #13 Greg B
    September 12, 2007

    All too much of it is based on concepts that were developed in prescientific times, hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. This was long before science started to understand the causes of many major diseases and used that knowledge to develop effective treatments.
    Orac, you’ve hit it on the head. This is not only a problem with altie medicene, but also all the ID/creationist religious dogma.

    I’ve recently started using a phrase that seems to knock some smarts into people when they hear it. I refer to religious dogma as “Late Bronze Age Beliefs”. People almost physically react like they’ve been hit when they hear that. I think a lot of people have never considered that their thinking about subjects like religion haven’t changed since that time. Something about invoking the late bronze age makes them think about how old those beliefs are. Suddenly, they don’t seem quite so sure when exposed to the 21st century light of day.

    I don’t claim to have changed religious fundies or alties to a rational way of thinking. But I have found it a useful tool to at least get them to think about how true their beliefs may be.

  14. #14 Dale
    September 12, 2007

    Orac, obviously you missed the memo …

    The following was posted by Henry Bauer in response to Tara and Steve’s PLoS article on HIV denialists. The bolding is mine.

    Smith and Novella fail to define ‘rigorous scientific standards’, and apply implicitly this single criterion: accordance with the prevailing mainstream consensus. Evidently they accept as unproblematic a ‘strongly held consensus opinion of the scientific community’ that has persisted for ’23 years’. This begs questions grappled with in a century’s worth of scholarship in science studies (history, philosophy, sociology, etc., of science), thereby ignoring fundamental insights about scientific activity. Amateur pundits – including scientists, journalists, and others – continue to rely on such discredited notions as ‘the scientific method’ and ‘falsifiability’ even as scholarship in science studies long ago demonstrated their inadequacy and abandoned the quest for a definable distinction between science and pseudoscience (1).

    If ‘the scientific method’ and ‘falsifiability’ have really been discredited then it (as in woo in its infinite manifestations) all makes perfect sense!

  15. #15 vlad
    September 12, 2007

    I’m all for complimentary medicine even Reiki. If it makes you feel better then hell go ahead. Positive attitude is always a benefit. Even if it has no clinical significance what so ever at least those times won’t suck as much. You want to take these herbal concoctions and go to a faith healer (which is what all the energy healing is) then go ahead. However once you go past complimentary medicine and start on the alternative versions big mistake. Use all the bronze age techniques all you want so long as you add it to EBM no harm done, with some few exception which were discovered by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
    However there really does need to be an established body (Federal) for regulating herbal medicine. The scariest and funniest thing about herbal remedies is that gullible people assume that just cause it’s natural it’s safe. There are natural substances that put to shame any man made toxins. Natural does not mean safe and there needs to be someway of getting this through to people. Alternatively us edumacated people could just stay quite and let evolution take it’s course. Thus we prove that alternative medicine does not work (and is dangerous) and the evolution occurs all in one go. Ethics however make this approach questionable.

  16. #16 khan
    September 12, 2007

    You’ll appreciate this cartoon:

    http://www.chron.com/apps/comics/showComick.mpl?date=20070911&name=TDIE
    (They’ll Do It Every Time)

  17. #17 Jordan
    November 29, 2007

    You are just like every other M.D out there. Your head is jammed so far up you’re own ass you can’t see the light of day. How many deaths have you personally accounted for Mr.M.D? I’m sure you know the statistics, Medical Doctors in the United States last year accounted for approximately 600,000 deaths, and we thought cancer was killing alot of people, not to mention the amount of deaths caused by the meds that our “trusted” Doctors so willingly give to patients. I’m sure you enjoy the benefits of pushing these detrimental drugs, what did you get ????? A 60″ LCD tv, a week in Hawaii???? or just plain old cash ???

    Wait for the popping sound. That’ll be when you pull your head out of your ass and open your eyes and realize that your just a part of the big machine that is the cancer industry.

    There are natural cures that don’t involve RADIATION,CHEMOTHERAPY, OR SURGERY. I have witness them personally on many occasions.

    So, keep up the good work of prescribing drugs that kill people.

  18. #18 HCN
    November 29, 2007

    Jordan said “There are natural cures that don’t involve RADIATION,CHEMOTHERAPY, OR SURGERY. I have witness them personally on many occasions.”

    So can you be so kind as to tell what these cures are, and where the documentation showing that they worked? Just give us the evidence so that we can become enlightened and educated just like you. Thank you.

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