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Home » Cancer cures and alternative medicine — not much here

Cancer cures and alternative medicine — not much here


If you cruise the internet looking for cancer “cures,” you will find a lot of alternative medicine claims that this or that will cure cancer. They make it seem so easy, but, of course, there are few, if any, alternative medicine cancer “cures” that do what they claim. If they did work, they’d just be cancer medicine, not alternative medicine.

A paper was recently published that examined the survivability of individuals with curable cancers who refused conventional cancer treatments and chose complementary and alternative medicine. We will get to that article, but spoiler alert – alternative medicine does not work and may be dangerous.

surgeons performing surgery
Photo by Павел Сорокин on Pexels.com

What is alternative medicine?

Alternative medicine is any “medical” treatment that is not supported by robust scientific evidence or incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Most complementary and alternative medicines have no clinical effects beyond placebo (see Note 1), and they cannot treat any serious medical condition. Alternative medicine is pure pseudoscience.

Alternative medicine can include traditional Native American remedies, traditional Chinese medicine (like acupuncture), chiropractic, homeopathy, New Age nonsense, and many other kinds of woo. Of course, many alternative medicine types push their cancer cures, none of which have been shown to work.

Alternative medicine is popular because it provides false hope to those interested. The purveyors of these “cures” can make outrageous claims about cancer cures because they can play to the fears of cancer patients about surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. They promise easy cures, but they cannot provide robust, repeated, and published evidence that supports their claims.

As Tim Minchin famously said,

You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?

Medicine.

Cancer primer

Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth which can invade or metastasize to other tissues and organs. Although people use tumor and cancer interchangeably, not all tumors are cancer. There are benign tumors that do not metastasize and are not cancers.

The National Cancer Institute claims that there are over 100 types of cancer.  Cancer Research UK states that there are over 200 types of cancer.  The American Cancer Society lists over 70 types of cancer (although some are more classes of cancer rather than a single type).  Wikipedia lists over 180 different cancers.

The variance in number results from the lack of precise definitions for some cancers. So researchers may group several different cancers into one heading. But clearly, there are up to 200 or more different cancers.

Furthermore, each of these cancers has a different etiology (cause), pathophysiology (development), treatment, and prognosis. When someone is called a “cancer researcher,” they are rarely studying all cancers, but they’re studying one small part of the story of one of the 200 or so cancers.

Cancer usually requires numerous, up to 10, independent genetic mutations in a population of cells before it can become a growing, metastatic cancer. Each mutation is selected, as in natural selection, because it provides some benefit to the cancer cell, such as causing blood vessels to supply the cells with nutrition and oxygen, or the ability to divide rapidly, whatever the feature is.

A recent study published in the journal Science makes a strong case for random chance as the most important factor in cancer development. According to the study, the vast majority of cancers are just a simple error in DNA replication. If this is so, developing one of the 200 (or more) different cancers may be unavoidable, despite a “healthy lifestyle” or attempting to “boost” your immune system.

After examining 32 different kinds of cancer, the researchers found that 66% of these cancers resulted from chance mutations in cells, 29% resulted from the environment, and 5% from inheriting a mutation.

Geneticist Bert Vogelstein and mathematician Cristian Tomasetti, at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, conducted the study, a follow-up to an earlier one, which arrived at the same conclusion. The researchers wanted to know whether DNA replication errors were behind most cancers, versus other factors, such as tobacco.

You can do a few things to prevent cancer, such as quitting smoking, staying out of the sun, getting your hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations, not drinking alcohol, keeping a low body weight, and eating a balanced diet. But even if you are a paragon of healthy living, a random mutation in some cell in your body can lead to cancer.

One last thing. A lot of our ideas about what may or may not cure cancer is based on preclinical research, which very rarely is brought into clinical trials or is successful in clinical trials. In fact, there seems to be a lot of evidence that it is difficult, if not impossible, to repeat the preclinical studies, so it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept the results of them. Simply, a lot of research that is publicly touted often ends up meaning nothing.

Oh, one more thing. Big Pharma isn’t hiding a secret cure for “cancer.” But they have brought the world thousands of effective treatments, in combination with evidence-based oncology, that have led to a substantial reduction in the cancer mortality rate over the past two decades.

Alternative medicine cancer cures are dangerous

The study, by Skyler B Johnson, MD, of the Yale School of Medicine, was published in JAMA Oncology in July 2018. The researchers examined a huge database of cancer patients over 20 years – the study included an impressive 2 million individuals. They sorted through the records to compare patients who used alternative medicine to treat their cancer to a matched sample of individuals who relied upon evidence-based cancer treatments.

I also want to emphasize that the researchers specifically selected individuals who had easily treatable cancers.

Let’s cut to the chase – after controlling for confounding variables, that is, variables that can influence both the cause and the effect, individuals who utilized alternative medicine for cancer treatment were statistically much worse off.

  • Alternative medicine users had a much lower chance of surviving 5 years after cancer diagnosis.
  • They were 2X more likely to die of cancer.
  • Less than 70% of alternative medicine users were alive seven years after diagnosis. This compared to more than 82% of those who relied upon science-based medicine who survived seven years.
  • The mortality risk for those individuals who used alternative medicine increased every year when they avoided standard cancer therapy.

Now, this doesn’t mean that the study found that alternative medicine hurts cancer patients. Alternative medicine is worthless, it does not affect health. However, what the researchers did state is that those individuals who preferred alternative medicine were refusing or delaying conventional cancer treatments that work.

Because alternative medicine is scientifically worthless, it probably doesn’t matter if the patient uses it along with conventional cancer therapy. It is amusing that many patients will give credit to the CAM therapy rather than the conventional one when their cancer goes into remission. Of course, most of us know the scientific facts about it.

This is an observational study and it cannot show causality, except when it does. Moreover, size matters – this is a 2 million-person study which allows us to see small statistical differences.

Summary of alternative medicine cancer cures

If you have a cancer diagnosis, use real evidence-based medicine to treat it, not CAM quackery. Despite patient fears of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, the evidence has shown us that they work and that the mortality rate for many cancers continues to drop every year. The trope that Big Pharma, Big Hospital, and Big Oncology are hiding the one cure to cure them would be amusing if it weren’t so dangerous.

Let’s be clear – complementary and alternative medicine is worthless. The evidence that it provides cancer cures just doesn’t exist – the best, most robust, highest-quality evidence shows the way we treat cancer is best done by real physicians with real backgrounds in oncology.

Notes

  1. Many people overstate the value of placebos – officially, a placebo means that the effect is nothing more than can be found by giving the patient a sugar pill. The effect is almost always psychosomatic, so placebo effects are more prevalent with neurological conditions like pain, although the evidence that CAM can treat pain is laughably inconsistent. However, placebos have never been shown to treat cancer, mend a broken bone, cure an infectious disease, save a trauma victim, or do anything for other serious medical conditions. In science, anything with a “placebo effect” is considered a failure, and it would never receive FDA approval. The placebo effect is simply a myth.

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Michael Simpson

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