I didn’t think I’d be revisiting this topic so quickly. However, given that I’m at TAM and I don’t have a lot of time to do one of my usual 2,000 word epics for a change, I thought that this story, which popped up the other day while I was traveling was at least worth mentioning:
Robert Young will appear in a California court today on 18 charges of theft and “treating the sick without a certificate” at his alternative retreat near San Diego.
Among other offences, the 63-year-old, who believes in the “pH Miracle” of avocado juice, is accused of taking more than $50,000 from a man dying of cancer, treating him without a licence and then asking staff at his centre not to tell the patient his disease had spread. The man subsequently died.
Mr Young, who made his name with best-selling books advocating a “pH diet”, denies all the charges and insists he is the victim of persecution for his non-traditional beliefs. He has published a series of video testimonials from contented patients, including Mr Campbell-Danesh’s parents, GP Avril Campbell and retired gastroenterologist Booth Danesh.
The accused, who refers to himself as Dr Young, citing a PhD from an alternative medicine college, tried to use the two Scottish doctors’ credentials to support his treatments.
Here’s number one:
Here’s number two:
Here’s number three:
As part of my talk yesterday, I pointed out how easy it is to be fooled by quacks in medicine. What’s depressing is how easy it is for even a physician to become a believer in quackery. Sometimes, all it takes is being diagnosed with a serious disease. Now, to Dr. Campbell’s credit, she did undergo standard treatment for her breast cancer, complete with the recommended chemotherapy. That’s good. It’s also understandable that she felt wiped out at the end of her treatment. This is a very common finding. It’s also true that sometimes there can be long-term sequelae of chemotherapy, but in reality the most healing thing needed after successful multimodality chemotherapy is the tincture of time.
What’s depressing to see is how a physician can fall hook, line, and sinker for even the most obvious quackery. In the videos, she discusses pH and “balance” in the body and praises Young for having studied it all his life. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Young is nothing of the sort, and his “pH Miracle” rests on a massive misunderstanding of acid-base physiology in the human body and an even more massive exaggeration of how much one can change one’s acid-base physiology and what such changes would do. I’ve referred to his treatments and views before as a “symphony of pseudoscience and quackery,” where he is a germ theory denialist, believes that cancerous tumors are made up of cells spoiled by acid, and viruses are “molecular acids.” He’s treating cancer and other diseases based on an utter misunderstanding of biology and physiology, but he’s treating cancer. Basically, it just doesn’t get any quackier than Robert O. Young. Well, I suppose it does, but such a quack would be fearful to behold.
In her testimonial, Campbell discusses the various tests she’s undergone. She describes something about looking at her blood under a microscope. Sounds innocent enough, right? Wrong. To anyone with a little knowledge of quackery, what she describes sounds like “live blood cell analysis,” which, as a physician, she should know has no value in diagnosing illness.
She also describes undergoing “full body thermography,” which is another favorite naturopath technique that, while potentially not quackery, is, to put the kindest spin possible on it, not ready for prime time in that there is no evidence of its usefulness in detecting breast cancer—or any other cancer—at least none sufficient to justify doing whole body scans as a fishing expedition for various made up diseases. She further describes undergoing colonics and “seeing” that they are causing abnormalities found on the thermograms to regress. Again, she should know better. Thermography is problematic at best to interpret, given how much our body temperature varies in different areas and can change just depending on activity and metabolism. As I said before, the sad thing is that thermography is a technology that has some degree of scientific plausibility. Unfortunately, whatever promise it might have (probably not much these days given the development of so many more imaging modalities), thermography is so tainted with the stench of quackery that it will be hard to overcome that.
Campbell also relates another incident in which she underwent an ultrasound of her thyroid. Now, given how common cysts and other abnormalities are in the thyroid gland and how relatively uncommon clinically apparent thyroid cancer is compared to tiny foci of indolent cancer that never cause a problem in the patient’s lifetime, screening a person with an ultrasound for no clinical indication is a technique custom-made to produce overdiagnosis. In any case, she discusses what sounds like a loculated cyst which was of concern. I have no idea who did the ultrasound or who interpreted it. Moreover, if this truly was a suspicious lesion, Campbell should have undergone fine needle aspiration of the cyst, not just continue to observe it. At one point she touts how the same person using the same equipment had measured a 12% decrease in the size of the cyst. Without seeing the images, it’s hard to tell if such a small decrease was real or just differences in technique or random variation. For small cysts, differences in technique or random variation are more likely to explain it.
The bottom line is that most likely Campbell felt better because she was in Southern California on a ranch, getting some sun in a warm clime, being more physically active, and, possibly, eating better, although whether it was necessary to go to the extreme of a raw vegan diet is debatable at best. None of this, diet, exercise, or relaxation, is in any way “alternative.” So the stuff that helped Campbell was more or less mundane, science-based medicine that almost anyone can do, but Robert O. Young grafted his pseudoscience and quackery onto it, including live blood analysis, thermography, colonics, and who knows what collection of supplements. When Campbell felt better, she thought the “whole program” was necessary, when in reality it’s highly unlikely that anything other than mundane things like hanging out at a ranch and getting regular exercise helped her, although I’m sure Young charged her a lot for all the others stuff.
Interestingly, the cancer center where Campbell works wants nothing to do with this, and correctly so. For instance, it’s pointed out that:
In his blog, he described Dr Campbell as a “world renowned specialist oncologist and research scientist”. Dr Campbell herself, in her video testimonial, said she was an oncologist at Glasgow’s Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre. She does work at the Beatson, as a speciality doctor, but is not officially registered with the General Medical Council as anything other than a GP.
NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde yesterday distanced itself from the endorsement of Mr Young’s brand, pH Miracle Living, with sources stressing that she was speaking in a purely personal capacity. A spokeswoman said: “The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre has not heard of this product and in no way would endorse or support it.”
A Scottish cancer specialist contacted by The Herald said: “There is no way the Beatson will want to be associated with something like this.”
Nor should it. Unfortunately, Campbell has tried to associate Beatson with this quackery. I’ve mentioned it before, but I feel obligated to mention it again. A serious illness can change even an ostensibly science-based physician such that she becomes susceptible to pseudoscience. Of course, given the way that Campbell and her husband spoke in video testimonials, I rather get the feeling that the tendency to woo was already there. Be that as it may, doctors are being warned not to endorse quack cancer cures:
MEDICAL staff have been urged not to lend their names to alternative health therapies after the doctor parents of singer Darius Campbell-Danesh gave glowing internet testimonials to a US man who claimed he could cure cancer.
Robert Young, 63, has been charged with theft and “treating the sick without a certificate” in California.
However, GP Avril Campbell and retired gastroenterologist Booth Danesh, who are the parents of the singer and West End stage actor, appeared in a video praising Mr Young who claims to be able to cure cancer with avocado juice.
Dr Campbell, who works at Glasgow’s Beatson cancer centre, was recovering from breast cancer when she visited Mr Young’s alternative retreat outside San Diego. However, a charitable trust that aims to help people make sense of scientific and medical research said yesterday that doctors were vulnerable to being targeted to endorse controversial treatments.
It is sad that such a warning even needed to be issued.
Finally, I’m dying to know what happened at that court hearing mentioned in the news story, but Google is strangely silent about it. The sooner I see Robert O. Young in a prison jumpsuit again, the happier I’ll be.