As a result of this cervical smear scandal, Ms. Mhathúna sued the HSE and the US clinical laboratory, Quest Diagnostics, which performed the tests. She settled in court for €7.5 million from HSE and Quest. Another US-based clinical laboratory, Clinical Pathology Laboratories (CPL) of Austin, TX, was involved in a similar lawsuit from another Irish woman, Vicky Phelan, who also received a false negative – they settled for €2.5 million.
Subjectively, one the wilder claims one can find on social media is that marijuana cures cancer. Or cannabis prevents cancer. It doesn’t matter what form – smoked, eaten, hemp oil (which is manufactured from the seeds of cannabis plants that don’t contain much THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the active hallucinogenic agent of cannabis) – some advocates for cannabis will try to make the argument that it is some miracle drug for cancer.
Of course, many of the answers provide answers that are supported by scientific evidence – CAM cancer cures do not work. Of course, there are a few scam artists answering the questions who make outlandish claims about cancer cures. And the number of times someone claims that cannabis is one of the best cancer cures is ridiculous – the evidence is extremely weak (see Note 1).
A paper was recently published that examined the survivability of individuals with curable cancers that refused conventional cancer treatments and chose complementary and alternative medicine. We will get to that article, but spoiler alert – CAM doesn’t work and may be dangerous.
What is complementary and alternative medicine?
CAM is any “medical” treatment that is not supported by robust scientific evidence or incorporated into evidence-based medicine. Most complementary and alternative medicine have no clinical effects beyond placebo (see Note 2), and it cannot treat any serious medical condition. CAM is pure pseudoscience.
CAM is known by its other names – quackery, quackademic medicine, snake oil, woo, or junk medicine. CAM quacks invent absurd pejorative names for evidence-based medicine just to create a silly false balance – terms like allopathy, conventional medicine, or Western medicine. You science-based readers will see through this nonsense, and understand what they really mean is “evidence-based medicine, but we prefer our pseudoscientific medicine.”
CAM is popular because it provides false hope to those interested. These quacks can make outrageous claims about cancer cures because they can play to fears of cancer patients about surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. These scammers promise cures that are easy, but these “therapies,” in fact, don’t work.
You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work?
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 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.
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 replications errors were behind most cancers, versus other factors, such as tobacco.
The researchers found, after examining 32 different kinds of cancer, that 66% of these cancers were a result of chance mutations in cells, 29% resulted from the environment, and 5% from inheriting a mutation.
These mutations aren’t “naturally” a part of the cell’s physiology. Moreover, these mutations can have a lot of different causes – environmental (like smoking or UV radiation), viral (hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are the most famous), heredity, and maybe other things. These mutations are more or less random, and they can’t be prevented by anything special–if only it were that easy.
There are a few things you can do 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.
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 a 20-year period of time – it included an impressive 2 million individuals. They sorted to 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 for 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 CAM for cancer treatment were statistically much worse off.
CAM 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 CAM users were alive seven years after diagnosis. This compared to more than 82% of those who relied upon evidence-based medicine who survived seven years.
The mortality risk for those individuals who used CAM increased every year that they avoided standard cancer therapy.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the study found that CAM had a negative effect on cancer patients. CAM is worthless, it has no effect on health. However, what the researchers did state is that those individuals who preferred CAM were refusing or delaying conventional cancer treatments that actually work.
Because CAM is 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.
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.
If any compound of the marijuana plant can actually treat cancer, it will be isolated by real medical researchers, they will create a method to deliver that component directly to the site of the cancer, they will test it for efficacy and toxicity, and then seek FDA approval. Anecdotes and weak pre-clinical studies for any of the claimed cancer cures are nearly valueless to real science-based medical treatments for cancer.
Many people overstate the value of placebos – officially, a placebo means that the effect is nothing more that can be found by giving the patient a sugar pill. The effect is almost always psychosomatic, so placebos 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.
I am fairly certain that most of the feathered dinosaur’s readers have read articles about alcohol health effects. It’s bad. It’s good. It prevents heart attacks. It causes cancer. It reduces risks of Sasquatch attacks but increases risks of alien abductions.
I know some of you are thinking that science never gets this right. Who are you to believe? An ancient feathered dinosaur? Your favorite news website? Your next door neighbor? Alien Sasquatch?
As I’ve written before, there are just a handful of ways to reduce your risk of cancer. Don’t smoke. Stay out of the sun. Keep a healthy weight. Don’t drink alcohol. And get vaccinated with the HPV vaccine to prevent HPV-associated cancers (see Note 1).
I’ve written about this many times before – courts do not get to decide what is good or bad science. Although courts and science may not necessarily be incompatible, attorneys, juries, and judges are generally not trained in scientific research, scientific methods, scientific publications, and/or scientific reasoning.
Two relatively recent cases are strong evidence that courts and science can be quite incompatible. In the first case, a jury ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) to pay US$4.69 billion in damages to 22 women who claimed that the company’s talcum powder products caused ovarian cancer. In the second case, a jury ordered chemical manufacturer Monsanto to pay US$289 million to a janitor who claimed that Round-Up (glyphosate) caused his terminal cancer.
The problem with both of these cases is that there is, at best, some weak, unrepeated scientific evidence that supports their claims. However, if you refrain from cherry-picking articles on PubMed, you’ll find that the vast majority of research either doesn’t support their claims or even shows that there are no links between talc or glyphosate and cancer.
Although I have no poll numbers sitting in front of me, and certainly no scientific peer-reviewed research, I just have a feeling that if you scratch the surface of an anti-vaccine activist, you will find that if they could hate one vaccine, it would be Gardasil. And one of the arguments will be all about Gardasil effectiveness – they claim it doesn’t actually prevent cancer.
When you couple their false claims about the dangers of the vaccine with the claims about the lack of Gardasil effectiveness, you’d probably agree with the anti-vaccine crowd. Despite these false claims, HPV vaccine uptake has slowly grown in the US and other countries.
One of the misinformed tropes of the anti-vaccine world is that there is no evidence that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine actually reduces cancer rates. Given that the vaccine was only introduced in the last 10 years, it would take time for researchers to study this issue. But now, we have more evidence that the cervical cancer rate declined after the introduction of the HPV vaccine in the USA.
Although there is a myth that the HPV vaccine is just to prevent cervical cancer, I expect, over the next few years, there will be new research that shows reductions in other cancers, in both women and men, as a result of the introduction of the vaccine. Moreover, the effect of the vaccine on males may take longer since the vaccine was recommended for males only a few years after it was introduced.
I do repeat myself repeatedly, I admit, especially about cancer. There are really only a handful of ways to lower your risk of cancer – stop smoking, stay out of the sun, eat a “healthy” diet, keep a healthy weight, don’t drink alcohol, and a few other things. One of those few science-based methods to stave off cancer is getting vaccinated against cancer-causing viruses. The HPV vaccine and hepatitis B vaccine (see Note 1) are some of the most powerful tools in cancer prevention.