Milk: It'll do a body good! For cancer?

Here's one of the stranger "alternative cancer cure" cases I've seen in a while. Basically, a man seems to think that a daily helping of his daughter's breast milk will cure his metastatic colon cancer:

When Tim Browne sits down to a bowl of corn flakes in the morning, he slurps up one unusual, and controversial, extra ingredient: his own daughter's breast milk.

He doesn't do it for the taste -- Browne initally said his daughter Georgia's breast millk tasted "not unpleasant, but slightly pungent" -- but for his health.

Nearly two years ago, the retired teacher and musician from Wiltshire, England, was diagnosed with colon cancer. He went into surgery a week before his daughter's wedding, but a month later, doctors told him the cancer had spread to his liver and lymph nodes and was terminal.

Surgery was ruled out this time, so Browne began a course of chemotherapy. Desperate to help, his daughter Georgia came up with the idea while watching a show about breast milk.

"[It was] a man in America. It was prostate cancer this man had and he'd been drinking breast milk every day," she said. "Anyway, this guy really swore by the breast milk and said that it had reduced his tumors."

Sounds like a plan to me. Or does it? There's no evidence that drinking breast milk will cure metastatic cancer, but that doesn't stop Mr. Browne from thinking it does:

Browne had to stop taking his daughter's milk when nausea from the chemotherapy made the taste intolerable to him. He is not cured of the cancer, but he is convinced that taking the milk was the right thing to do.

"It's very difficult to tell if something is working or not," Browne said. "What we feel comfortable about is the process of doing it has been amazing and has helped all of our family."

ABC News medical contributor Dr. Marie Savard said that even though breast milk is known to have benefits and it's make up can't be reproduced, "there's no research to say those same proteins in human breast milk will benefit this man."

Savard said the placebo effect in this case, though, is very real.

Shockingly, this is probably exactly what's going on, although it's a rather strange way to activate the placebo effect. Even so, we can be pretty darned sure that there is no objective effect, particularly given that he is only consuming a few ounces a day. Also, the example of prostate cancer is not a good example, given that it is in general slow-growing and can wax and wane over time as it grows.Moreover, amazing advances have been made in treating colon cancer metastatic to the liver. Survival has improved a lot over the last decade or so. Mr. Browne could do quite well for a couple of years. At least, for his sake I hope so.

Still, none of this excuses this absolutely execrable piece of journalism, particularly the accompanying video, which is full of credulous comparisons that are almost certainly irrelevant to this man's case. I just hope this sort of reporting doesn't lead to adults raiding milk banks, given that there isn't enough human breast milk out there to feed the premature infants who need it.

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***BANGS HEAD***
***BANGS HEAD***
***BANGS HEAD***

I am a new dad (6 mos now), and while I haven't tasted my wife's breast milk directly, I did taste some rice cereal made from breast milk. That's the closest I've come.

Desperate to help, his daughter Georgia came up with the idea while watching a show about breast milk.

Why is it these people don't have that filter in their heads that says "You know... If I try this, it really isn't going to turn out well at all..."? Even a small bit of channel-surfing will aptly demonstrate that what's coming out of the television has little intellectual value. It's an entertainment device; it's rarely an informational device.

By AZSkeptic (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Brilliant. After all, how many infants have colon cancer?

By Epinephrine (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

To the first three commenters: YOU are the ones who are disgusting. What on earth is intrinsically wrong with breast milk? I assume you all consume the body fluid of a cow on a regular basis--how is this different? While I think Mr. Browne's reasoning is definitely faulty, I can't see any harm in consuming this milk as long as the daughter (or any other source) can spare it. My whole family has sampled breast milk out of curiosity and found it very sweet and not at all unpleasant. What is wrong with you lot?

Heh, yeah, nothing wrong at all with this particular family doing this if the placebo effect works for them, but the news article hyping it up is shite.

I have an idea I am working on called the doctrine of "selective irrationality", that basically lays out the conditions under which it is okay to abandon rational thought for aesthetic reasons. Three conditions must be met:

1) You need to be aware you are being irrational.
2) You must not, under any circumstances, try to convince other people to adopt your irrational belief.
3) You must periodically reevaluate your irrational belief from a rational perspective to see if it might be doing non-trivial harm to yourself or others, and if so, be willing to let go of the belief.

I think this little breastmilk thing definitely meets criteria #1 and #3, since the guy is still doing chemo and the breastmilk is almost certainly not going to harm him (it might even be a little bit good for him, though definitely not for his cancer...). But once the news starts trumpetting this as a miracle cure, #2 is violated and it is not okay anymore.

The selective irrationality thing is important because it allows us to do things like buy a lottery ticket now and then for fun, believe that you and your spouse are "meant for" each other, etc. These things are part of the human experience, and it's fine... as long as I don't start a website trying to convince other people that my wife and I were meant to be together, and that if they'll just believe me then maybe their cancer will go into remission...

By James Sweet (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

I've seen references to this on crunchy mommy websites, where they suggest feeding breast milk to people with cancer to boost their immune systems. I think this is a result of the public health campaigns to get mothers to breastfeed--they've so vastly overstated the benefits that people are concluding the stuff cures every disease under the sun.

Anthro -- our society has a taboo against consuming the bodily fluids of another, with the exception of breastfeeding infants and, for some reason, fellatio (though the inevitable result of that practice is still considered gross). There are good reasons for this, most notably the fact that diseases will transmit more readily from human to human than from cow to cow. (There are exceptions, of course. Before pasteurization, contaminated cow's milk was a significant rabies vector, rabies being one of the few viruses that infect all mammals equally well.)

Frankly, I would no rather drink Similac than breast milk. Having sampled my own breast milk while I was nursing my babies, I can attest that it is indeed sweet but also has some rather peculiar qualities to it as well. Hard to describe. I tasted it several times; the flavor definitely varies over time, probably in part due to my varied diet. (There is very little that I don't like!) I didn't care for it much, and I tend to like insanely sweet drinks. I think it's an acquired taste that you tend to lose with age. (That's not unusual with flavors. Heck, after my mom weaned me off of breastmilk, I got to really loving squash, and I can barely stand squash now.)

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

James Sweet, may I quote those criteria? Those are excellent criteria that I think a lot of people should be aware of.

And for the record, I don't remember the last time I drank breast milk, mainly due to the fact I was 1 year old at the time.

Oh. So. CREEPY!!!
"Here dad, have a glass of my milk!"
*shudders*

(btw, yes, I got creeped out at the end of Grapes of Wrath, too)

By Rogue Epidemiologist (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Breast milk has had magical healing properties since the days of Ancient Egypt, when Isis healed her son Horus of all sorts of injuries and illnesses with her breast milk.

Of course, we can hope that society has grown out of the magical thinking stage. We can hope.

By Leslie Haber (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Breast milk has had magical healing properties since the days of Ancient Egypt, when Isis healed her son Horus of all sorts of injuries and illnesses with her breast milk.

Of course, we can hope that society has grown out of the magical thinking stage. We can hope.

By Leslie Haber (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

I don't see anything intrinsically wrong with drinking breast milk as an adult and if it was his wife's I wouldn't weirded out in the least (or even if it was donated by a friend). However it's his daughter's breast milk and that's just creepy.

I'm probably much less grossed out than average the basic idea of drinking breast milk than average--when my kid was breast feeding I periodically considered using the excess for baking. Never did it, mostly out of fear of grossing everyone else out but it always seemed a shame to waste it...But I am disturbed about this poor man's reasoning. Why should he think that breast milk will help him? If he is lucky enough to live long enough for this to be a problem, what will he do when his daughter weans her child? Will he freak out and demand she continue producing milk for him? I wonder what he thinks the mechanism by which the milk protects him is.

*Please* tell me I'm not the only one creeped out at the thought of my dad asking me to do this. What does breast milk have that cow's milk doesn't?

Breastmilk is baby food, pure and simple, not magic mummy juice.

By aunt benjy (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

OK, I can see how the fact that human breast milk has antibodies that can be absorbed (by infants) could "morph" into "breast milk is good for what ails you". However, what makes him think that his daughter might have antibodies to prostate cancer?

I doubt that she has been exposed to prostate tissue, so it is unlikely that she has developed antibodies.

Do people even think about this stuff before they try it? Or is it all just magical thinking? He saw on the telly a guy "swear" that drinking breast milk shrunk his prostate cancer and so he has to give it a go?

There are times when I despair of the human race ever digging itself out of the Dark Ages. We were doing so well for a while and then the 60's came around - now we're back into medieval magical thinking.

Prometheus

Please tell me she's pumping or something... O.o

@Anthro
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an adult drinking breast milk. HOWEVER it is just creepy as all get out for an older man to be drinking the milk from his daughter's teat. Wet nursing, as far as nature is concerned, goes in order of generational descent, not the reverse.

There are a lot of things that are not intrinsically wrong, yet are excessively creepy.

@aunt benjy
Yes, a few of us are creeped out. But bovine milk does lack some things found in human milk, namely HUMAN antibodies. They also differ in proportions of fat and protein. I only ponit this out because there are a few raw food faddist morons who insist on drinking unpasteurized bovine colostrum because they think it will boost their immune systems and protect them from diseases. It will -- if faced with certain BOVINE diseases.

And yet, they still wind up getting sick on Campylobacter jejuni.

By Rogue Epidemiologist (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Question on my mind is

Does he drink it from the tap?

OK, as someone with breasts that could have been used for this purpose when I was nursing my twins long ago (they are 12 now and stopped breastfeeding long before they were a year old), I just have to say "NO, NO, NO donations!!! and "EEEEWWWWW..."

Show of hands guys...how many of you are going "eeew, it comes from boobies!" as opposed to "agh! She feeding her breast milk to her dad! *shudder*"

Me I'm in the "ewwww. It's her dad!" camp.

I'm in the "with both of them being consenting adults, I'm most hung up on the incredibly flawed reasoning behind this" camp, personally. O.o

It was my understanding that IgA antibodies are transferred from mother to child in breast milk because the child's intestinal epithelium is immature and 'leaky'. The adult digestive system completely digests proteins like antibodies and absorbs the individual amino acids. That's specifically what digestive proteases do. If this is true, passive immunity is not easily transferred to adults through the GI tract. Am I wrong?

Oh, thanks Orac.

Now I can't get the image of this guy latched on to his lassie's mammaries.

I've seen multiple instances of somebody on one of the "mommy boards" recommend instilling a few drops of breastmilk into the ear of a child with otitis media.

I wonder if his daughter is still breast feeding an infant or just acting as a wet nurse for her daddy?

I wonder if his daughter is still breast feeding an infant or just acting as a wet nurse for her daddy?

I wonder if his daughter is still breast feeding an infant or just acting as a wet nurse for her daddy?

sorry for the triple post...it said error

It is a common error. It just says that the system is too busy to echo back the page, and to not post the message again, but to check to see if your message got through.

Ironically, extended breast feeding is offering his daughter some protection against breast cancer. However, having pumped for a year I have to say that it's not worth it.

Oh, that's a good Onion article!! Had me laughing hard enough to tilt sideways.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Gives a new and somewhat disgusting meaning to "drink-a-pint-a-milk-a-day"

Kate @24 : "Me I'm in the "ewwww. It's her dad!" camp."

Yup. me too. ALthough an adult drinking anybody's breast milk is slightly creepy, drinking your daughter's product takes the creepy to a whole new level.

Yep, that's pretty gross, all right. Kind of smacks of cannibalism, once you're past the weanling stage, I think.

And no, I don't drink cow's milk, nor the milk of any other animal, because unlike most of the mutants in the crowd, I'm one of these people whose digestive system didn't stay in a perpetual infantile state, and able to digest the stuff. You know, the normal human condition, assuming we're talking about all humans instead of just those from NW Europe and a few places in Africa.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

"I've seen multiple instances of somebody on one of the "mommy boards" recommend instilling a few drops of breastmilk into the ear of a child with otitis media.

Posted by: Squillo | May 28, 2009 7:50 PM"

Good gracious. Given how sugary human milk is, that's a terrible idea. That's like putting out a sign saying "yeast, set up here!"

But then, that's certainly not the first terrible idea I've heard from a "mommy board". They're kinda scary.

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Calli- I am an anthropologist and well aware of cultural taboos and know that some have a basis in biology, but my remarks were directed at people who were apparently revolted by just reading about breast milk on cereal. I think this is cultural, but not in the sense of taboo, but along the same lines as people who drop a bit of food on the floor and throw it away even though it is going to be cooked thoroughly at high temperature.

This from the CDC:

HIV and other serious infectious diseases can be transmitted through breast milk. However, the risk of infection from a single bottle of breast milk, even if the mother is HIV positive, is extremely small. For women who do not have HIV or other serious infectious diseases, there is little risk to the child who receives her breast milk.

It just seems odd to me that people posting on a science-oriented blog would have such a rather superstitious reaction to breast milk.

I am not bothered by a person drinking breast milk, as long it was pumped. Dr. Robstak, if the daughter is producing breast milk she may assumed to be an adult, especially since she is married. And according to the ABC article, it was her idea, so she just sets some aside everyday. Though that has stopped since he now finds combined with his regular cancer treatment the taste in intolerable.

What is silly is the belief that it will help with his cancer.

When my ex-wife was lactating, I enjoyed sampling some suckling. It isn't as if our child wasn't at least rumored to be due to an exchange of bodily fluids between us.

I agree it is too sweet for my taste, but taste was more of a secondary consideration at the time.

Father/daughter suckling, or just drinking pumped milk, does get more than a bit of the creepy factor involved.

I am surprised that nobody asked whether he makes a toast saying, Who's your Daddy?

What kind of comedians are you?

I'm in the meh camp, personally, with a dash of eww, daddy thrown in.

By Robster, FCD (not verified) on 28 May 2009 #permalink

Umm- we are talking about someone from Wiltshire here- it is the UK's equivalent of the appalachians (except it's flat as a pancake).

On the basis of this idea, human breast milk extract has been studied in the clinic. I used to work for a cancer research company and I reviewed a programme in which a protein extracted from breast milk had been given (IIRC) to bladder cancer patients, with some evidence of activity - with all the usual caveats about it being a (very) small, uncontrolled study. Ok, I've looked it up. The study was published here:http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17514650. There are various other published preclinical studies looking at the activity of the compound.

The company was using donated milk at the time I looked at this project.

This is also another interesting example of a completely natural product which a commercial company is indeed bothering to study and develop (or was at the time). Gives the lie to the concept that companies don't spend money on 'natural' remedies because they can't be patented.

Gives the lie to the concept that companies don't spend money on 'natural' remedies because they can't be patented.

Quite. I'm not sure that most people understand what can and can not be patented. You can't patent breast milk but you can patent a purified component, especially one which has been altered after extraction to enhance efficacy (or even just patentability.) Taxol springs to mind, along with the vinca alkaloids-both natural products, both patented, both highly effective in various situations.

Note, however, that the protein given in this study (HAMLET-love the name) was given intravesicularly, not orally. It seems unlikely that an oral preparation (i.e. unfractionated breast milk) would be useful because the protein-lipid complex is likely to be digested before it gets to the tumor site. In short, maybe he should be taking it as an enema. Or better yet finding a clinical trial of HAMLET in colon cancer.

I wonder if the posters above would find a breast milk enema a more or less disgusting concept than a breast milk drink?

I fully agree on the futility of drinking the stuff for therapeutic use though.

Mel, enemas with anything is stupid. Especially when perfectly good coffee is used.

My wife would be very unhappy if I were to be using breast milk for my own purposes. She is not very fond of wasting it at all. When she is especially full, she actually uses a glass to catch the drippings while the baby is nursing on the first side. That is an extra 1/2 - 1 oz that we can use in a bottle (when mom is gone, like today) or to make cereal.

I wonder if the posters above would find a breast milk enema a more or less disgusting concept than a breast milk drink?

I don't know, but I think once you've gotten to the point where you're willing to drink your daughter's breast milk, disgusting others probably isn't your biggest concern. On consideration, though, it seems like his biggest problem is not the primary disease but liver mets so an enema probably wouldn't be particularly useful either. IV administration of HAMLET might* be useful, but then we're kind of getting away from the "natural" thing.

*Emphasizing MIGHT. There's no way of knowing without a properly conducted clinical trial.

Honestly, this doesn't bother me (and I'm disappointed by all the comments about breastmilk being disgusting.) Who is this harming? This man isn't refusing chemotherapy. He's not trying to convince others to refuse chemotherapy. He says himself that it's hard to tell whether it's working, but that both he and his daughter are happy with how things are going, and if the placebo effect is making both of them feel better, then so be it.

By Joanna Holland (not verified) on 29 May 2009 #permalink

I wonder, what do the "Anti-dairy" whackos have to say about breast milk?

@Karl Robstad
Actually, there are breastmilk fetishists. I know one.

By Rogue Epidemiologist (not verified) on 29 May 2009 #permalink

While I don't doubt there are those fetishers, I have to say, there is nothing less sexy about my wife than breastfeeding.

Don't get me wrong, it is a beautiful, amazing thing that she does, but not sexual in any way.

Twenty odd years ago, my son was born with a cleft lip and palate. I ended up pumping milk for months for him. Each drop was regarded as liquid gold, and there would be no way I would be sharing it with MY DAD!!! Especially without any scientific evidence.....

This was mentioned on Sunrise on Australia's Channel 7 TV station yesterday and (perhaps surprisingly) they asked a doctor about it.

He stated clearly that there's no evidence for this "treatment" and that mother's milk is good for babies and likely little else - BUT he also went on to say that lot's of people seem to attribute health benefits to alternative remedies whilst not giving recognition to any real medical attention they might also have received.

Good television for a change.

Living in Bulgaria and lactating means people may hit on you for your medicinal properties. Breast milk is said to resolve eye infections. Older generations preferred direct application from breast to eye. Now there's some visuals for you.

So far no one has shown interest, but I have a canned reply: Go to hell.

And pumping has been one of my most unpleasant chores. I try to do it only when absolutely necessary. Now, pumping with your dad in mind...I wonder how that woman does not totally lose the let-down reflex. Horrifying.

I usually think of my mother-in-law when a leak threatens to happen. Works every time.

By Nervy Wolverine (not verified) on 30 May 2009 #permalink

I think this little breastmilk thing definitely meets criteria #1 and #3, since the guy is still doing chemo and the breastmilk is almost certainly not going to harm him (it might even be a little bit good for him, though definitely not for his cancer...). But once the news starts trumpetting this as a miracle cure, #2 is violated and it is not okay anymore.

I'm reminded of an episode of Friends.

Ross: This is the most natural, beautiful thing in the world
Joey: Yeah, we know, but there's a baby sucking on it!

By A Dog Smirk (not verified) on 30 May 2009 #permalink

I can see why this man and his daughter tryed this as we are dealing with the same thing with my mum when a family loves each othere they will look and try to find cures its a way to try to keep your hopes up and to try to take your mind of the sadness that is to come if there is noo inprovment in health i dont feel creeped out by the fact that he is taking breast milk or the fact that it is his daughters milk i think you should all think if it was happening to you or some one you love you would do the same as any one else you would try any and every thing you could to keep them in your life and alive good on the daughter for trying and good on her dad for not giving up the fight and trying

thank you col

I can see why this man and his daughter tryed this as we are dealing with the same thing with my mum when a family loves each othere they will look and try to find cures its a way to try to keep your hopes up and to try to take your mind of the sadness that is to come if there is noo inprovment in health i dont feel creeped out by the fact that he is taking breast milk or the fact that it is his daughters milk i think you should all think if it was happening to you or some one you love you would do the same as any one else you would try any and every thing you could to keep them in your life and alive good on the daughter for trying and good on her dad for not giving up the fight and trying

thank you col

I can see why this man and his daughter tryed this as we are dealing with the same thing with my mum when a family loves each othere they will look and try to find cures its a way to try to keep your hopes up and to try to take your mind of the sadness that is to come if there is noo inprovment in health i dont feel creeped out by the fact that he is taking breast milk or the fact that it is his daughters milk i think you should all think if it was happening to you or some one you love you would do the same as any one else you would try any and every thing you could to keep them in your life and alive good on the daughter for trying and good on her dad for not giving up the fight and trying

thank you col

Not exactly a thread I would like to have a necromancer bring up. What kind of google search brought this up!? Is Mr. Browne still alive?

He died in August last year, and today there's a story about how a bench is being dedicated to his memory (apparently he was a music patron in his hometown). The story doesn't mention his unorthodox treatment regimen, but how many 67-year-old Tim Brownes with cancer were living in Calne last year?

Thank you.

This kind of news reminds me of the expose I saw of Benny Hinn on the CBC. They went and tried to find out what happened to all those people he "cured" and found that some never had the diseases they said they had and others had died. Some cure.