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The complexity of cancer: A science-based view

Last week I participated in a panel discussion at NECSS with John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, and Steve Novella, who reported on the conference last Monday. What I mentioned to some of the attendees is that I had managed to combine NECSS with a yearly ritual that I seldom miss, namely the yearly meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting. There are two huge cancer meetings every year, AACR and the annual meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO). AACR is the meeting dedicated to basic and translational research; ASCO, as the word “clinical” in its name implies, is devoted mainly to clinical research. Personally, being a translational researcher myself and a surgeon, I tend to prefer the AACR meeting over ASCO, not because ASCO isn’t valuable, but mainly because ASCO tends to be devoted mostly to medical oncology and chemotherapy, which are not what I do as a surgeon. Each meeting draws between 10,000 to 15,000 or even more clinicians and researchers dedicated to the eradication of cancer.

Having taken the Acela train from the NECSS meeting in New York straight to Washington, DC for the AACR meeting, I couldn’t help but think a bit about the juxtaposition of our discussion of the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia with the hard core science being discussed at AACR. One session in particular at AACR highlighted what is one of the most significant differences between science-based medicine and the various forms of “alternative” medicine that we discuss here on SBM on such a regular basis. That difference, quite simply put, is the difference between the simple and the complex. “Alternative” medicine supporters often scoff at practitioners of science-based oncology, asking why we don’t have a “cure for cancer” yet—as if cancer were a single disease!—or why we haven’t made much more progress since President Richard Nixon declared “war on cancer” back in 1971. One part of the answer is that cancer is incredibly complicated. Not only is it not a single disease, but each variety of cancer is in and of itself incredibly complicated as well. To steal from Douglas Adams, cancer is complicated. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly complicated it is. I mean, you may think algebra is complicated, but that’s just peanuts to cancer.
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Posted in: Cancer

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Chemotherapy versus death from cancer

Editor’s Note: Having pivoted immediately (and dizzyingly) from attending NECSS and participating with John Snyder, Kimball Atwood, and Steve Novella in a panel on the infiltration of quackery into academia to heading down to Washington, DC for the AACR meeting, I’ve neglected my SBM duties a bit this week. After a packed day of talks at the AACR meeting followed by spending an evening with a friend whom I haven’t seen for a long time (complete with a trip to The Brickskeller), there’s–gasp!–no new material today. Because for some reason a decision was apparently made to cut our panel very short in order to get the conference back on schedule, we were unable to answer anywhere near as many questions from the audience as we had originally hoped, I was thinking of doing a post trying to answer a couple of the questions asked by audience members who came up to me after the panel terminated prematurely, because one of them was a particularly dicey situation. Maybe later this week. In the meantime, here’s something that I wrote about a year ago, which I tweaked a bit. It’s a very serious topic, but I think it appropriate because it discusses exactly what science-based medicine tries to prevent using evidence and what “alternative medicine” claims it can prevent based on no evidence.

I’ve written before about the Daniel Hauser case, a 13 year old boy who last year refused chemotherapy for his Hodgkin’s lymphoma, necessitating the involvement of the legal system. Cases like that of Daniel Hauser reprsent supreme “teachable” moments that–fortunately–don’t come along that often. The antivaccine movement, for instance, will be with us always (or at least, I fear, as long as I still walk this earth and beyond), but cases like that of Daniel Hauser tend to pop up only once every couple of years or even less. As tragic as they are, they always bring up so many issues that I have a hard time leaving them alone.

This time around, I wanted to touch on an issue that has come up frequently in the discussions of this case, and that’s the issue of chemotherapy. Specifically, it’s the issue of how horrible chemotherapy can be. Again, make no mistake about it, chemotherapy can be rough. Very rough. But what is often forgotten is that it can also be life-saving, particularly in the case of hematologic malignancies, where it is the primary therapy. What is also often forgotten or intentionally ignored by promoters of unscientific medicine is that doctors don’t use chemotherapy because they have some perverted love of “torturing” patients, because they’re in the pockets of big pharma and looking for cash, or because they are too lazy to find another way. They do it because, at least right now, it’s the best therapy science-based medicine has to offer, and in the case of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for example, it’s life-saving. You can be sure that if a less harsh way were found to achieve the same results, physicians would jump all over it. Indeed, a major focuse of oncology research these days is to find less brutal regimens and improve the quality of life of cancer patients while still giving them the best shot at survival.
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Posted in: Cancer, Pharmaceuticals

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The dangers of opponents of science-based medicine

Michael Specter, author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, on the danger of science denial:

Given that more than half of the video is devoted to discussing vaccine denialism, supplements, and HIV/AIDS denialism, I think Spector’s talk is quite appropriate for this blog. Perhaps the best quote in Specter’s entire speech is this: “When you start down the road where belief in magic replaces evidence and science, you end up in a place where you don’t want to be.”

Unfortunately, for more and more of the population, it seems, when it comes to vaccines and “alternative” medicine that’s exactly where they’re going. They don’t want to be there, but unfortunately they won’t realize it until there there. They might not even realize it even then.

Unfortunately, society will.

Posted in: Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Randi on World Homeopathy Awareness Week

World Homeopathy Awareness Week is fast coming to an end, unfortunately. And what would any sort of “homeopathy awareness” be without a commentary from James Randi? After all, Steve, Kimball, and I will be seeing Randi on Saturday as we participate in the SBM panel for NECSS:

We at SBM share with Randi his desire that people be aware of the true nature of homeopathy.

Posted in: Homeopathy

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A homeopathy supporter notices our visit with the director of NCCAM

On April 2, Steve Novella, Kimball Atwood, and I visited the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to meet with its director, Dr. Josephine Briggs. I’m not going to rehash what was said because we agreed that Steve would handle that task, and he did so admirably last week. I agree with Steve that it was encouraging that Dr. Briggs apparently reads this blog and shares many of our concerns about NCCAM, the poor science that it has funded, and its use by promoters of unscientific medicine to promote their quackery. Most heartening of all was that she appeared to recognize how much CAM is infused with anti-vaccine beliefs and, worse, the promotion of these beliefs to the detriment of public health.

Those positive reactions to what was a friendly but frank exchange of views notwithstanding, as we were sitting in a conference room next to Dr. Briggs’ office, I couldn’t help but wonder what the reaction of CAM promoters would be when they found out about this meeting. Now I know. John Weeks over at The Integrator Blog is not happy:

Novella’s posting reads like a Fox News interview: 95% his team’s point, then a brief NCCAM response. That Briggs asked for the meeting likely grew out of an early March conference at Yale at which Novella and she both participated. For this, she deserves the Barack Obama Big Tent award for her proven interest in sitting down with everyone, no matter which party affiliation or belief. (Some have said this was proven in early 2008 when Briggs met with me.) Arguably, Briggs takes her openness to dialogue further than the President. While Obama has kept arms length from leaders who call for the demise of the United States, Briggs has now met with those who have been lobbing bombs at her professional home for years, calling steadily for NCCAM’s destruction.

Because our previous calls for the closing of a relatively small government institute because we view it as a poor use of taxpayer money is just like calling for the downfall of the United States government. Weeks clearly likes ridiculously overblown hyperbole. Interestingly enough, what appeared to upset Mr. Weeks the most was our discussion of homeopathy with Dr. Briggs. As Steve put it:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Homeopathy, Medical Academia

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Steven Higgs: Another antivaccine reporter like Dan Olmsted in the making?

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and as of today April is nearly half over. Do you notice anything different compared to the last couple of years? I do. Can you guess what it is?

The anti-vaccine movement’s usual suspects haven’t been all over the mainstream media, as they usually are this time every year, often as early as April 1 or even March 31. In fact, over the last couple of years I had come to dread April 1, not because it’s April Fools’ Day (although the things that made me dread that particular day were often indistinguishable from an April Fools’ Day prank, so full of idiocy were they), but rather the expected carpet bombing of the media by the likes of Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, and their ilk, some or all of whom would show up on various talk shows to spread their propaganda that vaccines cause autism. For instance, last year Jenny McCarthy and her former boyfriend Jim Carrey showed up on Larry King Live! with Dr. Jerry Kartzinel (her co-author on her latest book of autism quackery) and J. B. Handley, the last of whom even contributed a guest post on Larry King’s blog, in which he touted an incredibly bad, pseudoscientific “study” commissioned by Generation Rescue. The “study” (and calling it a “study” is way too generous) was no more than cherry-picked random bits of data twisted together into a pretzel of nonsense, as I described. Around the same time, Jenny McCarthy was interviewed by TIME Magazine, an interview in which she uttered these infamous words:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their fucking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s shit. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Soon after, Generation Rescue created a website called Fourteen Studies, which they promoted hither, thither, and yon. The idea of the website was to attack the main studies that failed to find a link between vaccines and autism and to promote the pseudoscientific studies that anti-vaccinationists like. In 2008, it was pretty much the same — well, worse, even. When she appeared on Larry King Live! with our old “friend,” anti-vaccine pediatrician to the stars, Dr. Jay Gordon, McCarthy shouted down real experts by yelling, “Bullshit!” (behavior trumpeted by Rachel Sklar of the Huffington Post).

This year? Oddly enough (and to me unexpectedly), there’s been almost nothing. J.B. Handley seems to be the man who wasn’t there. Well, not quite. It turns out that J. B. Handley has managed to get a little bit of fawning media attention, but just a little bit, in the form of an interview in The Bloomington Alternative entitled J. B. Handley: It’s unequivocal; vaccines hurt some kids. Apparently Mr. Handley has come down quite a bit in the world. Where’s his appearance with Jenny on Larry King Live! this year? Maybe it’s coming in the second half of the month. Or maybe the mainstream media, in the wake of the fall of Andrew Wakefield, have finally figured out how disreputable Generation Rescue is when it comes to vaccines. In the meantime Steven Higgs will have to do as a new mouthpiece for the anti-vaccine movement.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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In honor of World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2010, part 2

As I pointed out yesterday, World Homeopathy Awareness Week began yesterday. One common question that’s asked about homeopathy goes something like this: If homeopathy is just water, then what’s the harm?

Here’s the harm:

Part 1

Part 2

Homeopathy is magical thinking, far more religious or superstitious in nature than medical or scientific. And this form of magical thinking can lead people people to eschew effective medical therapy, with tragic results.

Posted in: Homeopathy

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In honor of World Homeopathy Awareness Week 2010

Today, April 10, is the first day of World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW), or, as I like to call it, World Sympathetic Magic Awareness Week. This week long “celebration” runs from today until April 16. Now, given the dim view of homeopathy which, I daresay, each and every blogger here at SBM shares, you’d think I wouldn’t want people to pay attention to WHAW. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is because I view homeopathy as nothing more than quackery based on magical thinking that I actually want people to be aware of it, starting with some of the more amusing bits that homeopaths have published over the last year. Like this bit:

Which Steve discussed here, and Orac had some fun with here. (Steve’s deconstruction of Benneth’s nonsense brought responses calling him a hypocrite, a Nazi or a “slave breaker.”)

Or this bit:
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Posted in: Homeopathy, Humor

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Looking for quackademic medicine in all the wrong places

One advantage of having a blog is that I can sometimes tap into the knowledge of my readers to help me out. As many readers know, a few of the SBM bloggers (myself included) will be appearing at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) on Saturday, April 17. Since the topic of our panel discussion is going to be the infiltration of quackademic medicine into medical academia, I thought that now would be a very good time for me to update my list of medical schools and academic medical centers in the U.S. and Canada that have embraced (or at least decided to tolerate) quackademic medicine in their midst. After all, the list is over two years old and hasn’t been updated.

My list is long past due for an update, and I want to post that update right here, either right before or right after NECSS. But I need your help. Please peruse the previous roll of shame. Then either post here in the comments or e-mail to me any examples of quackademic medical programs in the U.S. and Canada (I’ll leave Europe to others better qualified to deal with it) that I may have missed. Equally important, if there are programs I listed before that no longer peddle woo, let me know that too, so that I can investigate and decide if I should remove the program from my list.

I’m particularly interested in the most egregious examples (although your submitting all examples is greatly appreciated). Yoga and meditation don’t bother me that much, for example. Neither do dietary studies, because diet and exercise are science-based medicine that have all too often been coopted by purveyors of woo. Homeopathy and reiki, on the other hand, do bother me. A lot. I’m also particularly interested in educational programs in CAM that are funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

Please help me construct the definitive list of academic programs in the U.S. and Canada that have adopted quackademic medicine.

Posted in: Announcements, Medical Academia

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The continuum of surgical research in science-based medicine

Editor’s note: Three members of the SBM blogging crew had a…very interesting meeting on Friday, one none of us expected, the details of which will be reported later this week–meaning you’d better keep reading this week if you want to find out. (Hint, hint.) However, what that means is that I was away Thursday and Friday; between the trip and the various family gatherings I didn’t have time for one of my usual 4,000 word screeds of fresh material. However, there is something I’ve been meaning to discuss on SBM, and it’s perfect for SBM. Fortunately, I did write something about it elsewhere three years ago. This seems like the perfect time to spiff it up, update it, and republish it. In doing so, I found myself writing far more than I had expected, making it a lot more different from the old post than I had expected, but I guess that’s just me.

In the meantime, the hunt for new bloggers goes on, with some promising results. If we haven’t gotten back to you yet (namely most of you), please be patient. This meeting and the holiday–not to mention my real life job–have interfered with that, too.

The continuum of surgical research in science-based medicine

One of the things about science-based medicine that makes it so fascinating is that it encompasses such a wide variety of modalities that it takes a similarly wide variety of science and scientific techniques to investigate various diseases. Some medical disciplines consist of mainly of problems that are relatively straightforward to study. Don’t get me wrong, though. By “straightforward,” I don’t mean that they’re easy, simply that the experimental design of a clinical trial to test a treatment is fairly easily encompassed by the paradigm of randomized clinical trials. Medical oncology is just one example, where new drugs can be tested in randomized, double-blinded trials against or in addition to the standard of care without having to account for many difficulties that arise from difficulties blinding. We’ve discussed such difficulties before, for instance, in the context of constructing adequate placebos for acupuncture trials. Indeed, this topic is critical to the application of science-based medicine to various “complementary and alternative medicine” modalities, which do not as easily lend themselves to randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trials, although I would hasten to point out that, just because it can be very difficult to do such trials is not an excuse for not doing them. The development of various “sham acupuncture” controls, one of which consisted even of just twirling a toothpick gently poked onto the skin, shows that.

One area of medicine where it is difficult to construct randomized controlled trials is surgery. The reasons are multiple. For one thing, it’s virtually impossible to blind the person doing the surgery to what he or she is doing. One way around that would be to have the surgeons who do the operations not be involved with the postoperative care of the patients at all, while the postoperative team doesn’t know which operation the patient actually got. However, most surgeons would consider this not only undesirable, but downright unethical. At least, I would. Another problem comes when the surgeries are sufficiently different that it is impossible to hide from the patient which operation he got. Moreover, surgery itself has a powerful placebo effect, as has been shown time and time again. Even so, surgical trials are very important and produce important results. For instance, I wrote about two trials for vertebral kyphoplasty for ostoporotic fractures, both of which produced negative results showing kyphoplasty to be no better than placebo. Some surgical trials have been critical to defining a science-based approach to how we treat patients, such as trials showing that survival rates are the same in breast cancer treated with lumpectomy and radiation therapy as they are when the treatment is mastectomy. Still, surgery is a set of disciplines where applying science-based medicine is arguably not as straightforward as it is in many specialties. At times, applying science-based medicine to it can be nearly as difficult as it is to do for various CAM modalities, mainly because of the difficulties in blinding. That’s why I’m always fascinated by strategies by which we as surgeons try to make our discipline more science-based.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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