Skeptical Raptor's Blog hunting pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Do you believe in treating cancer with alternative medicine?

Recently, I saw a question on Quora, in which the author asked, “Do you believe in treating cancer with natural regimens?” In a landslide, the best answer, which is chosen by the readers, was one written by a UCLA medical school graduate and Fellow in Oncology at Stanford University School of Medicine, Dr. David Chan. In other words, Dr. Chan is a cancer expert who actually spent 10-12 years of his life gaining an education in treating cancers (instead of like 30 minutes Googling junk medicine).

cancer-curedThere is nothing more that I can say, here is Dr. Chan’s reply to the Quora question on treating cancer:

I believe in treating cancer with anything that works. Show me that something works, and I’ll use it. Period.

But don’t give me a story of how someone’s aunt’s best friend was told that she had 6 months to live and was cured by taking a natural supplement found through the internet and is still alive 10 years later. And then ask me to give the okay to try it. 

Some cancer patients have the great misfortune of having a cancer that is either very advanced and/or poorly treatable by anything. For them, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference what they do, with the exception of some considerable out of pocket expenses if they see someone particularly unscrupulous. 

But I’ve seen my share of patients with very curable cancers who elected to go the “natural” or the “holistic” or the “alternative” route and then come back to see me with advanced incurable disease. That’s really tough to swallow for them and for me.

Don’t give me anecdotes. Show me the data. Give me 200-300 patients with biopsy proven cancers. Yes biopsy proven. Because I see patients all the time that are told they have cancer but when the biopsy is finally done, it’s something else. Let a computer select half of them to get the “natural” regimen and the other half to get standard cancer treatment. No, that’s not remotely fair to patients. How about giving all of them the best standard treatment and then having the computer select half of them to also have the “natural” regimen. Will it have any positive effect?

Show me the results. If the “natural” stuff works, I and most other cancer specialists will use it.

No one likes surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy. But advances have made all of these treatments more effective and more tolerable. These treatments have scientific proof behind them. 

Don’t give into magical thinking.

A sad story.  A while back, a mother came into the emergency room at UCLA. My colleague (who is now a world famous cancer specialist) and I were asked to see her in the ER. Her husband had brought her in with a large ulcerated infected cancer in her breast.  The cancer was very advanced and had entirely replaced her left breast and had grown down her chest wall. The odor was horrific. The cancer was obviously wide spread and she was in really bad shape. They had 3 kids at home. Poor woman. Poor family.

Me turning to her husband: “Can I ask how long has she had this?”

Husband: “She found it about 5-6 years ago.”

Me: “What treatments has she had?”

Husband: “She’s been taking different natural remedies and putting a salve on her breast to make it go away.”

Me: “She’s been doing this for 5 years?”

Husband: “Yeah.”

Me: “And it’s been working?”

Husband: “At first it seemed to work. They told her it would take time and eventually she would be alright. But this past year it’s not working.”

Me: “Who’s treating her? A cancer specialist? A medical doctor?”

Husband, very softly: “No…we’ve been seeing a healer.”

A long silence follows that seems to last minutes. I’m looking at her and I’m thinking…wondering if she and her husband will accept chemotherapy. And then I’m thinking that she might even be too ill, too weak, to receive chemotherapy. But she’s going to die either way. And then I’m thinking maybe I’ll bring her into the hospital and give her chemotherapy as an inpatient today.  I want to do something. Maybe I’ll call a surgeon to biopsy her breast.  But maybe I don’t need to do that because it will take days to get a result and I want to treat her right away. But the chemotherapy won’t work very well in this kind of situation. And I haven’t even seen her labs tests yet. She looks terrible. Is her calcium elevated? If so, maybe I need to treat that first. Did they get a chest Xray? Who’s got the data? Where’s the damn intern that was here just a minute ago? But what if this poor woman won’t agree to chemo? How much difference is it going to make? 

As the intern comes back in, my colleague, who hasn’t said a word after initial introductions, interrupts my thoughts by suddenly handing me his pager: “Dave, can you take my pages for an hour?”

Taking the pager with a puzzled expression, Me: “Sure John.”

My colleague: “Get the name and address of this healer. I need to go home and get a hammer. I’ve got a couple in the garage. Then I’m going to find this healer and beat his fucking brains in.”

Alternative medicine charlatans don’t have to worry about real world ethics. They can make unproven claims about their success rate, while making you believe that you can avoid the harsh reality of chemotherapy, surgery and/or radiation. I wish it were easy to treat cancer, I wish you could take a pro-biotic pill, or flush your system of toxins, or lay under a pyramid, and cure your cancer. 

And no, physicians aren’t hiding the truth of easy cures someplace in a secret computer file. Oncologists are not a bunch of sociopaths who want to see people suffer. I’ve known oncologists throughout my life, and though they appear to be strong, logical, and hardworking doctors, you can tell that they wish it were easier. They wish they didn’t have to break bad news. I’m not a psychiatrist, but my guess is that oncologists build up a wall so that the horrible events of their patients’ lives don’t throw them into permanent depression. 

And Big Pharma isn’t hiding the miracle cure for “cancer.” Well, the truth is there are hundreds of cancers, so there will probably have to be 100’s of cures, but why let facts confuse us here. If Big Pharma had the “cure” for breast cancer, they would beating down the doors to get it out there. Because they can make even more money, if that’s what you believe is their primary motivation.

But the problem comes down to this: there are no easy cures or preventions. None. Oh wait, the HPV vaccine is safe and effective in preventing several types of cancer. The vaccine prevents the transmission of certain types (pdf) of human papillomavirus (HPV), specifically types 6, 11, 16 and 18. HPV types 16 and 18 cause approximately 70% of cervical cancers, and caused most HPV-induced anal (95% linked to HPV), vulvar (50% linked), vaginal (65% linked), oropharyngeal (60% linked) and penile (35% linked) cancers. These cancers, mostly related to HPV, can be prevented as long as you can prevent the HPV infection from ever happening, which usually happens through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex.

I apologize for wandering off the cancer discussion, except for that fact that this vaccine actually prevents cancer. And it’s sold by Big Pharma. There goes that lie that “Big Pharma doesn’t want to prevent cancer,” one of the tropes of the alternative medicine world.

Dr. Chan makes it clear that cancer is tough, it is difficult, and it can kill. Delaying effective and scientifically-based treatment options can lead to an earlier death. But also a death much more traumatic and more harsh than anything you could imagine. Don’t fall for the lies of the charlatans. Please.

And if you or your children are in their teens–get the HPV vaccine to prevent a least a few of the hundreds of cancers. That’s the easiest, safest and most effective way of saving your life.

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