This project is behind schedule. The reasons, I hope, are forgivable. First off, there was just too much other stuff going on last week, to the point where, even though I’ve read several chapters of Suzanne Somers’ new book (if you can call it that) Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place (Random House website), I couldn’t force myself to sit down in front of the computer, copy of Knockout in front of me in order to pick choice brain-necrosing quotes from. Besides, the whole issue of Desiree Jennings came up, as well as a major anti-vaccine troll infestation in the comments that resulted in hundreds upon hundreds more comments than this blog normally gets. Now I’ve had a taste of what PZ has to deal with every week, and I wonder how the heck he does it.
Be that as it may, it’s time to move on from Chapter 1 of Knockout. When last we left Somers, she had described how she had been misdiagnosed with “full body cancer”‘; how oncologists, going against every oncologist I’ve ever worked with would do, allegedly tried to bully her into taking chemotherapy without a biopsy-proven tissue diagnosis of cancer (oncologists in general are very, very reluctant to treat a patient with cytotoxic chemotherapy unless they have a biopsy showing that the patient has cancer and what tissue type that cancer is); and, most hilariously of all, the story of how Somers got mad at her oncologist when he asked her why she hadn’t told him that she was on steroids. That last story revealed just how deep Somers’ pool of medical ignorance is, given that she denied being on steroids, even though right after that she pontificated about how the doctors were obviously “so out of touch with new medicine,” have “no clue,” and don’t “understand cortisol replacement as part of the menopausal experience.” I hadn’t been aware that cortisol (hydrocortisone when given as an evil “allopathic’ drug that is also, by the way, “bioidentical”) was in Somers’ witches’ brew of “bioidentical hormones” designed to give her body levels of estrogenic hormones equivalent to that of a 25-year-old. Never mind that estrogens are steroid hormones, and cortisol is a corticosteroid that can suppress the immune system, the latter simple fact meaning that it it is quite possible that it was Somers’ own fault that she got disseminated coccidioidomycosis (commonly known as Valley Fever) rather than a mild or asymptomatic version. I say that because, if Somers was taking large amounts of hydrocortisone–excuse me, cortisol–then she very well may have had steroid-induced immunosuppression that left her open to a disseminated infection when she happened to breathe in the fungus that causes the disease. True, she may have just been unlucky and aging (the latter of which is also a risk factor for disseminated disease) or breathed in a very large bolus (which is usually what happens when, for instance, there are outbreaks of valley fever in Army installations or among workers at large construction projects in areas where the fungus is endemic), but it was not at all unreasonable of her oncologist to link Somers’ ingestion of hydrocortisone to her having developed the most serious version of Valley Fever.
Naturally, Somers blamed the oncologist for “not understanding.” Arrogance of ignorance indeed!
With that background in mind, now it’s time to move on to more of the book. Originally, I had planned to blog it chapter by chapter, but now I’ll do it in multi-chapter chunks. The exceptions might be Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez and Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, both of whom probably deserve posts of their own.
I’ll start by going back to the book’s foreword, which was penned by one Dr. Julian Whitaker, who is apparently one of Somers’ doctors. Dr. Whitaker is clearly a physician who’s fallen for the whole “integrative” experience. His website is loaded with the promotion of his multiple books, “alternative medicine” products, and supplements. He appears to have made a name for himself by claiming that diabetes can be reversed without drugs or insulin:
This is the classic example of taking something that’s true (namely that type II diabetes can often be kept under control through diet, exercise, and weight loss) and going right off the rails through exaggeration and distortion. Dr. Whitaker does this by saying that oral hypoglycemic drugs like metformin don’t work (they do) and that IV antibiotics don’t work (they do, but not always) and then taking a bunch of anecdotes to argue that “conventional medicine doesn’t work.” But it’s much worse than that. Acupuncture and chelation therapy for diabetes? Holy woo, Batman! As this video predicts, Dr. Whitaker’s foreword is chock full of woo-speak and conspiracy-mongering worthy of Mike Adams of the über-quack site NaturalNews.com or even John Scudamore of Whale.to. Get a load of this highly characteristic excerpt from the early part of Dr. Whitaker’s foreword:
Conventional medicine’s approach to cancer prevention and treatment is a debilitating, often deadly fraud. The physicians who perpetuate this fraud must bear some responsibility, but the problem runs much deeper than individual doctors. The underlying issue is that the entire cancer treatment “industry” has been following a faulty paradigm for close to a hundred years.
A paradigm is a belief system. For instance, for centuries it was widely believed that the earth was the center of the universe. This paradigm was so firmly entrenched that it was part and parcel of Church dogma of the time. When Galileo proved four hundred years ago that the earth revolved around the sun, he so threatened the existing order that he was tried by the Inquisition, threatened with torture until he recanted what he knew to be the truth, and spent the remainder of his life under house arrest. That’s an example of the power of a paradigm–wrong though it may be.
Can you count the logical fallacies and distortions in those two brief paragraphs? First, we have the typical “cancer industry” conspiracy mongering so beloved of Mike Adams. And, of course, there is the usual “faulty paradigm,” or, as many woo-meisters like to dismiss it as, “dogma.” He then wraps it up with a “Galileo gambit,” a self-aggrandizement beloved of quacks everywhere, in which they liken themselves to Galileo being shown the instruments of torture because their “science” (and, for anything in Knockout, I do use the term most loosely) conflicts with the “dogma” or “paradigm” of the day.
There’s only one problem with this. (Actually, there are a lot of problems.) As Michael Shermer has pointed out, “Heresy does not equal correctness.” It did in Galileo’s case, but far more often it does not, at least in science. Another point is that Galileo was not persecuted by the scientific establishment of the day. Not at all! He was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, not his fellow scientists. Indeed, it was because his view went up against the dogma of the dominant religion of the time that he ended up facing the Inquisition, not because he went up against the dominant scientific paradigm of the time. If anything, Galileo’s persecution is far more like the reason the theory of evolution is constantly under attack. Religious fundamentalists view evolution as being against the Bible and the word of God, just as the Church viewed heliocentrism as being against the Bible and the word of God back in 1633, when Galileo was ordered to stand trial for heresy. Galileo is a very, very bad example to use if Whitaker wants to argue that those who buck the current scientific paradigm will suffer as a result.
Besides, as I’ve pointed out time and time again, for every Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, initially rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted–and never will be accepted because they were wrong. The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct! Their observations and ideas stood up to repeated observation and scientific experimentation by many scientists in many places over many years. The weight of data supporting their ideas became so overwhelming that eventually even the most intransigent doubters could no longer stand. That’s the way science works. Indeed, scientists like Galileo, Semmelweis, and Pasteur didn’t end up in the history books by simply reconfirming and recapitulating the dominant “paradigm” or “dogma” of their times. I daresay that none of the Nobel Prize winners won that prestigious award by demonstrating something that the scientific establishment already believed. No! They won it by discovering something new and important!
Truly, Dr. Whitaker does not understand how science works. In fact, I wonder why, if he really believes that he can completely reverse type II diabetes through a woo-ful amalgamation of diet, exercise, supplements, chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen, acupuncture, and various other “treatments,” Dr. Whitaker hasn’t–oh, you know–published his results managing diabetes in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Indeed, he hasn’t even published a single case report, as far as I can tell! I wonder why not. After all, if his results are so fantastic, he should publish them somewhere else other than in his books, on his website, and in various newsletters. He doesn’t and hasn’t. The reason is obvious: He almost certainly doesn’t have the goods and can’t back up his claims with scientific and clinical trial evidence that would convince other physicians and scientists that he is on to something. And, no, testimonials such as the ones in the video above (and like the ones that litter Knockout like confetti liberally sprinkled through the various chapters) don’t count.
Dr. Whitaker then goes on and on about the current “paradigm” of cancer therapy, invoking Dr. William Halsted, the revered surgeon of the late 1800s who first codified so much of cancer surgery, as being wrong. Never mind that the reason Halsted came to the conclusion that radical surgery for cancer, such as the radical mastectomy, was the only hope for cure was because at the time there existed no adjuvant therapy, such as radiation or chemotherapy. Surgery was it. If surgery couldn’t cure a cancer arising from a solid organ back then, then nothing could. For solid tumors like breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and others, surgery really was all there was. Otherwise reasonable people frequently forget this when castigating the radical surgical extirpative approaches championed over 100 years ago (which were admittedly too slow to change in the 1960s through 1980s, when effective adjuvant therapies and a better understanding of cancer were developed). Not surprisingly, “alt-med” boosters like Dr. Whitaker are either too ignorant of the history medicine to know that or disingenuously forget to mention such extenuating bits of background history when holding up Halsted as a historical example of what’s “wrong” with the current “paradigm” for the surgical treatment of cancer.
What’s more annoying is when Whitaker boldly says what should replace it:
What paradigm will replace it? It’s obvious. All cancer cells, whether they’re in the breast, prostate, pancreas, brain, or other organs, engage in undisciplined, rapid cell devision. This is the basic defect, and this is where cancer treatment should be focused. You don’t need ot cut it out or otherwise purge it. All you need ot do is to stop the cells from dividing, and the cancer will disappear?
My God! Why didn’t we think of that before? I mean, holy crap! How could we cancer researchers have been so incredibly stupid? All we have to do is to stop the cancer cells from dividing and we can cure cancer! Brilliant! Thanks, Dr. Julian! We don’t know what we poor stupid morons laboring away like drones in pharma-funded, NIH-constrained laboratories under a useless paradigm, unable to think of anything new, would do without your ingenius insight! We never would have thought of that without you! Stop cancer cells from proliferating. Right!
Now I know what to research. I’ll abandon all my previous research and work towards trying to figure out what makes cancer cells proliferate uncontrollably and how to stop that proliferation. Oh, wait. I already do that! So do thousands upon thousands of cancer researchers throughout the world. Hmmm. There appears to be a problem there. Cancer researchers have been trying to figure out how to stop uncontrolled cancer cell proliferation for decades now. The problem is, as I’ve pointed out, that it’s damned hard. Tumor cells don’t just use one mechanism to grow unchecked; they use many, and different cancers use different combinations of these methods, each requiring different strategies to target. Moreover, Dr. Whitaker’s understanding of cancer biology is truly painfully simplistic–rather like Somers’ actually. Cancer is about far more than “uncontrolled proliferation.” In fact, let’s take a look at a figure that I’ve seen in many, many talks about cancer and, in fact, that I’ve used in many talks about cancer (click for a bigger version):
That’s right, there are at least six key elements to cancer including:
- Self-sufficiency in growth signals. Normal cells need growth factors to proliferate. Cancer cells do not.
- Evading apoptosis. The proliferation of normal cells is kept in check by apoptosis (programmed cell death). Cancer cells are resistant to signals that cause apoptosis in normal cells.
- Sustained angiogenesis. I’ve written about this many times before. Tumor cells won’t grow beyond a ball of cells less than 1 mm in diameter unless they can induce the body to supply the developing tumor with a blood supply.
- Limitless replicative potential. Normal cells can only divide a limited number of times before becoming senescent and incapable of further growth. Cancer cells overcome this limit.
- Insensitivity to antigrowth signals. Normal cells are kept in check by a complex web of signals to keep them quiescent. Tumor cells can ignore those signals.
- Tissue invasion and metastasis. Growth is important, but metastasis is a complex, multistep process. Without invasion and metastasis what you have is a benign tumor that never invades or metastasizes to other organs, a tumor that can simply be removed surgically. Moreover, the processes governing metastasis are not the same as the processes regulating growth. There is overlap, sure, but they’re not the same.
Does Julian Whitaker even know what he is talking about when it comes to cancer? Nope. Just like Suzanne Somers. And just like the quacks that Suzanne Somers promotes in her book.
That brings us to chapters 2 and 3 of Suzanne Somers’ book. She spends most of chapter 2 touting the “brave maverick doctors,” although one thing she discusses is worth mentioning briefly is her promotion of Dr. Jonathan Wright, the doctor she called from her hospital in chapter 1. Basically, Dr. Wright apparently is a big booster of so-called “bioidentical hormones,” as Somers gushes:
Dr. Jonathan Wright is another of the pioneers you’ll meet here. His understanding of the hormonal system is mind-boggling. He was the first doctor to introduce bioidentical hormones to the United States over twenty years ago.
Now, what do bioidentical hormones have to do with a book about doctors curing cancer? Just about everything. You will be blown away when you read his explanations of the cancer-protective nature of natural hormones. When you consider that most women develop cancer when they go into hormonal decline, I believe you will be more than interested to read that proper replacement in the right ratios will protect you from getting cancer.
Oh, boy. I can hardly wait. I love this as yet another example of magical thinking and confusing correlation with causation. Women get cancer when they go into hormonal decline? No, they get cancer when they get old, just like men! Most cancers are a disease of aging. I’m not saying that hormones have nothing to do with them. After all, estrogen does drive the growth of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. Do men get prostate cancer because their testosterone levels at age 70 are much lower than they were than at age 20? True, men don’t go through a hormonal “decline” as dramatic as women do with menopause, but one wonders why Somers seems to concentrate only on women. More importantly, I wondered if Dr. Wright had any scientific accomplishments to support his claims; so I took a look at his website:
Jonathan V. Wright, M.D. has degrees from both Harvard University (cum laude) and the University of Michigan. More than any other doctor, he practically invented the modern science of applied nutritional biochemistry and he has advanced nutritional medicine for nearly three decades. Thousands of doctors respect Dr. Wright as the author of the best-selling Book of Nutritional Therapy and Guide to Healing with Nutrition, as well as other classics in the field.
Millions of Americans first learned about natural medicine through Dr. Wright’s regular columns in Prevention (1976-1986) and Let’s Live (1986-1996) magazines.
In addition, for nearly 30 years, Dr. Wright and his colleague, Alan Gaby, M.D., have been building an archive of natural healing science unique in all the world. Today it includes nearly every major study on the subject ever published in over 350 medical journals over the past 35 years…plus every pertinent study published in 50 major journals since 1920.
Dr. Wright is also credited with introducing the nutritional remedy for benign prostate disease (BPH)…the first successful treatment to reverse macular degeneration…the safe medical use of DHEA therapy…natural hormone replacement therapy for women…and many other revolutionary natural cures.
Hmmm. That’s not a good sign. Let’s look at his CV. There are some publications there. Some even look legitimate, although there are a lot of articles in “alternative” medicine journals. What I note is a glaring absence of any studies showing that his bioidentical hormone regimen does what he and Suzanne Somers say. The closest thing I see is a review published in 2005 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. I also notice something similar to what I’ve noted for Mark Geier. Dr. Wright appeared to have a reasonable scientific career until the late 1980s or early 1990s but after then his publications became more sparse and more concentrated in “alt-med” journals, with no publications in legitimate scientific journals since 2005. (No, I don’t consider Alternative Medicine Review to be a legitimate scientific journal.) As I say before, show me the science. Show me the well-controlled clinical studies. Show me the animal work. If there’s something to your claims, I’ll be persuaded.
No wonder she chose them, too! Chapter 3 reveals that Suzanne Somers is a full-bore conspiracy theorist whose ramblings would be right at home on NaturalNews.com or Whale.to. True, she spent considerable painfully inept verbiage in chapter 2 complaining about how some of her brave maverick doctors have been “persecuted” by their state medical boards and other law enforcement agencies, but in chapter 3, Somers lets her crank flag fly high, particularly in a section called “The Chemotherapy Racket.” Here are a a couple of choice excerpts:
How often is this happening on a daily basis in our country? [Orac asks: Doesn't Somers have an editor?] How cavalier is it that chmotherapy is thrown about as though it is the viable solution. Not a cure, not even a promise, just an antidote for what is perceived as cancer. In my case, there was no metnion of a chemosensitivity test in either of my two diagnoses to find out whether I would even respond to chemotherapy.
This entire scenario got me thinking that perhaps chemotherapy is a racket. Chemosensitivity tests exist. They do them routinely in Germany. Burton Goldberg will tell you about them in his Chapter. Shockingly, Dr. Robert Nagourney in Long Beach, California, and Larry Weisenthal in Huntington Beach, California, are the two lone doctors in America doing these difficult chemosensitivity tests. They know the benefits.
The doctors in this book all make the claim that chemotherapy is for the most part a failed protocol–in fact, a dismal failure. Our oncologists are stuck with a protocol athat, with the exception of a few select cancers, doesn’t work. But they have no other ideas about what does work, as this is all that is taught in American medical schools (which are compromised by funding from the pharmaceutical companies).
Chemotherapy is big business, and the business end has been thoroughly thought out. Our med students are taught the company line, and after years of being intensively taught how to administer poisons, the are then graduated to go out and give these lethal medicines. To question this would discourage financial grants, and no one wants to be cut loose from pharmaceutical funding: hospitals depend on it, universities depend on it, many doctors and Ph.D.’s depend on it. To admit that there might be another way could jeopardize the big hand that feeds them. And if they were to find another way it might indicate that their schooling and the study of cancer were still on the wrong track.
You know, I have to wonder if Mike Adams or John Scudamore ghostwrote those two excerpts. I was curious, however, about these chemosensitivity tests of which Somers writes. At first, I assumed that she was referring to tests where cultured cells from the patient were exposed to chemotherapeutic agents to try to identify what chemotherapies would work. There’s a reason that oncologists don’t do this; it doesn’t work very well. Depending on the cancer, culturing cells from a tumor is fraught with difficulty, and how they behave in vitro doesn’t necessarily correlate with how they behave in vivo. Such techniques were, for the most part, abandoned years ago. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t test tumors for chemosensitivity. We do. Routinely. For instance, there is the Oncotype DX, which I’ve mentioned before. There are other similar tests for other tumors. The reason no one tested Somers’ tumor when she was first diagnosed was because these tests didn’t exist in 2000. They are products of science-based medicine that have proliferated dramatically in the last decade with the explosion in genomic knowledge that has occurred. I would also add that the reason Somers wasn’t offered such tests the second time around when she was misdiagnosed with “full body cancer” is because there was no cancer tissue to test and she didn’t have a definitive diagnosis of cancer.
That’s why I couldn’t resist skipping ahead to the chapter on Burton Goldberg (who isn’t even a physician or Ph.D.!). I’ll discuss this more later, but suffice it to say that he appears to mix a lot of some possibly useful tests (the Biofocus, although the claim that it can “determine the DNA of the patient’s cancer cells” from a blood test (unless the cancer is a lymphoma or leukemia it appears unlikely that they would be able to do that) and “find which chemo or natural substance will target the primary and floating cancer cells throughout the body” is rather dubious. My guess is that it’s an experimental technique that hasn’t been adequately validated in clinical trials yet and thus isn’t ready for prime time. He also claims to use autologous vaccines, which is nothing that science-based medicine isn’t studying. Then there’s serious woo, such as the Ondamed machine, which is described as a biofeedback device that can somehow tell a patient how to “restore homeostasis” using language that sounds a lot like “unblocking qi.” Then there’s Asyrus devices, which supposedly use “resonance” from quantum physics to measure “organ efficacy,” whatever that is.
Of course, the best quackery is always quantum quackery, isn’t it?
Then there’s some seriously dangerous quackery advocated by Goldberg, namely insulin potentiation therapy coupled with whole body hyperthermia, an experimental technique that has, quite simply, shown little promise, although regional hyperthermia can potentiate the efficacy of certain chemotherapies, and is used, for example to treat limb sarcomas or melanomas by perfusing hyperthermic chemotherapy into the limb, whose circulation is isolated from the rest of the circulation. This allows very high concentrations of chemotherapy in the limb at hyperthermic temperatures.
I’m not impressed.
The bottom line is that I’m starting to wonder how much of Somers’ vapid writing, full of the arrogance of ignorance and burning stupid, I can take. When I say that Somers comes across as Mike Adam’s dumber sister, I’m not exaggerating. In fact, I’m being kind. And the panoply of cranks and quacks she lionizes will likely cause me intense pain before this is over. On the other hand, I consider this the advanced course in quackery. True, I’ve been studying quackery for nearly a decade now, but Somers has clearly found some pseudoscience and anti-science that I’ve never heard of before. It’s an educational experience and will broaden my knowledge of unscientific medical practices, while at the same time allowing me to provide a handy-dandy resource to refute the mountain of misinformation packed into a mere 300 pages with large type. Truly, it’s like packing the woo down to a black hole density–nay, a singularity–that sucks all science-based medical proclivities into its unquenchable black maw. It may even provide me some amusement, as I can already see that a lot of these brave maverick doctors hold beliefs about cancer that are mutually contradictory and can’t all be true; yet they are all in Somers’ book just the same, all presented equally, all presented as though they are equally plausible.
Truly, Somers’ crank magnetism is strong. It’s probably strong enough to power a MRI machine. God, I need a beer now.