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Alternative medicine use and breast cancer

Of all the posts I and my cobloggers have written for SBM over the last 15 months, most provoke relatively few comments. However, a few stand out for having provoked hundreds of comments. The very first post that provoked hundreds of comments was Harriet’s excellent discussion of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. In fact, Harriet seems to be quite good at writing posts that provoke a lot of comment, as another of her posts, specifically the one in which she discussed circumcision, also garnered hundreds of comments. However, to my great surprise, the one post that stands out as having received the most comments thus far in the history of SBM is one that I wrote. Specifically, it was a post I called Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame?, which has collected an astonishing 611 comments thus far. The topic of the post was a case report that I had heard while visiting the tumor board of an affiliate of my former cancer center describing a young woman who had rejected conventional therapy for an eminently treatable breast cancer and then returned two or three years later with a large, nasty tumor that was much more difficult to treat and possibly metastatic to the bone, which would make it no longer even potentially curable. My discussion centered on what the obligation of a physician is to such patients who utterly refuse the science- and evidence-based medicine that we know to be able to cure them of a potentially fatal disease, and I was not only surprised but somewhat taken aback by the vehemence of the discussion.

Since that post, I’ve always been meaning to take a look at what, exactly, the effect of choosing “alternative” medicine over “conventional” medicine is on the odds of survival for breast cancer patients. Even though intuitively one would hypothesize that refusing scientific medicine and relying on placebo medicine instead would have a detrimental effect on survival, it turns out that this question is not as easy to answer as you might think. For example, if you do a search on PubMed using terms like “alternative medicine,” “breast cancer,” and “survival,” the vast majority of the hits will be studies of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and breast cancer with little reference to what possible effect these therapies might have on survival. I can envision several reasons for this, the first being that–thankfully–relatively few women actually use alternative medicine exclusively to treat their breast cancer. Also, those that do probably drop off the radar screen of their science-based practitioners, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to capture data regarding their outcomes, given that they all too often stick with their alternative healers until the end. True, they may pop up again in their surgeon’s or primary care doctor’s office with huge, fungating tumors, only to be told that they have to undergo chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before any surgery is possible, after which they will often disappear again. Another important reason is that the natural history of breast cancer is extremely variable, from nasty, aggressive tumors that kill within months to indolent, slow-growing tumors that, even when metastatic, women can survive with for several years. (It is, of course, these women who usually show up in “alternative medicine” testimonials, because they can survive a long time with little or no treatment before their tumors progress.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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Welcome another new blogger for SBM

I’d like to take this opportunity to announce the arrival of another new blogger for SBM. Please wecome Dr. John Snyder.

John Snyder, M.D., is Chief of the Section of General Pediatrics and Medical Director of Pediatric Ambulatory Care at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. He is also Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College. Since 1994 Dr. Snyder has been active in pediatric resident and medical student education with a particular interest in evidence based pediatrics. His main area of interest is medical myth and the ways in which parents utilize information in making medical decisions for their children. One area of focus has been vaccine myth, and he lectures frequently on this subject in both academic and community settings. Dr. Snyder graduated form Mount Sinai School of Medicine and completed his residency training in pediatrics at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He is board certified in Pediatrics, and is a Fellow of The American Academy of Pediatrics. He is the founding partner of Pediatric Associates of Saint Vincents, a mutli-specialty pediatric faculty practice in New York City.

I first encountered Dr. Snyder on the HealthFraud mailing list, where, along with our very own Harriet Hall, he’s done yeoman’s work in the discussions there. Given how much the antivaccine movement has figured into the topics discussed here, I’ve also been looking for a skeptical pediatrician for quite a while now, which is why I’m very glad we’ve landed Dr. Snyder, who will be posting approximately once or twice a month. His first contribution to SBM will be posted later this week.

Please welcome him and be sure to comment on his first post, which will likely appear by Wednesday afternoon.

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When fraud undermines science-based medicine

The overriding them, the raison d’être if you will, of this blog is science-based medicine. However, it goes beyond that in that we here at SBM believe that science- and evidence-based medicine is the best medicine. It’s more than the best medicine, though; it’s the best strategy for medicine to improve therapy for our patients. We frequently contrast science-based medicine with various forms of “complementary and alternative medicine,” specifically pointing out that SBM changes its practices as new science and new evidence mandates it while CAM tends to rely on ancient, vitalistic, pre-scientific or pre-modern scientific beliefs about how disease occurs as the basis for its therapies. Although it may be painfully slow and frustrating at times and even though there may be major stumbles along the way, the overall course of SBM over the last century has in general been to produce ever more effective therapies and to discard therapies that are either ineffective or whose risk-benefit ratios are insufficiently favorable. The one single most important thing behind the advancement of medicine is good science.

That’s why I really, really hate scientific fraud, and I’m really, really upset, perhaps even more so than Dr. Atwood, over the discovery last week of what is arguably one of the most massive scientific frauds in medical history. It doesn’t matter that Dr. Atwood is an anaesthesiologist and I am not, meaning that the specific scientific fraud unearthed, which was perpetrated by an anesthesiologist studying multimodal anesthesia, as reported in Anesthesiology News, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. I am a surgeon, and the relief of surgical pain in my patients is an important part of my practice. If the scientific basis of what my colleagues in anesthesiology do before, during, and after my operations is called into doubt, I have to wonder if I am giving my patients the best surgical care. Aside from that, there is the intellectual outrage I feel as a result of seeing science and patients betrayed in such a systematic and blatant manner.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Pharmaceuticals, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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An all-too-common breast cancer testimonial for “alternative medicine”

One of the consistent themes of SBM since its very inception has been that, when it comes to determining the efficacy (or lack thereof) of any particular medicince, therapy, or interventions, anecdotes are inherently unreliable. Steve Novella explained why quite well early in the history of this blog, and I myself described why otherwise intelligent people can be so prone to being misled by personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Unfortunately, as I have also demonstrated, it’s not just patients who can allow themselves to be misled by anecdotes, but certain physicians who do not understand the scientific method but in their hubris think that their “personal clinical experience” trumps science, clinical trials, and epidemiology.

None of this is to say that there aren’t frequent instances when applying data from population-based studies to individual patients is problematic. It can indeed be. However, it often goes beyond that, and, indeed, if there is one defining characteristic of a quack that I’ve never failed to find when looking at individual cases, it’s a belief that he is able to identify when a treatment works based on his own personal experience and anecdotes. Unfortunately, it’s not just quacks who sometimes fall prey to this, because humans are cognitively wired to infer causation from correlation. This tendency, which was no doubt adaptive early in our evolution, simply doesn’t work well when it is applied to medicine and science. Without a doubt, it is the key driver, for example, behind the widely believed myth that vaccines somehow cause autism and that chelation therapy and other biomedical quackery can “cure” autism, a view popularized most recently by the very popular but very ignorant Jenny McCarthy in the U.S. and before that by the outright dishonest Andrew Wakefield in the U.K.

One of the other reasons why testimonials for quackery seem convincing is because most people simply do not know enough about disease, be it my specialty (cancer) or any other disease, how it is treated, and what its natural course can be expected to be. That is why, when I came across an example of just such a testimonial, specifically a breast cancer testimonial, I saw what is known as a “teachable moment. This teachable moment occurred on the very popular science blog Pharyngula, written by the ever sarcastic biology professor from Minnesota, P.Z. Myers. It actually surprised me in that the usual topics on Pharyngula include evolution, biology, the pseudoscience known as “intelligent design” creationism, politics, and atheism. P.Z. doesn’t usually dabble much in the realm of medical quackery, but my guess is that he was attracted to this particular piece of pseudoscience because of the religious angle.

Specifically, the quackery under consideration is known as God’s Answer to Cancer (GAC). Basically, it looks a lot like any number of quack electronic devices that promise to cure cancer; examples include Bill Nelson’s Electro Physiological Feedback Xrroid (EPFX) machine (1, 2, 3), Hulda Clark’s parasite zapper, or Alan Back’s Advanced Bio-photon Analyzer. All of these devices promise, in essence, to use low level electrical energy to “boost the immune system” and “replenish your life energy” plus or minus an additional promise to “zap parasites” (Hulda Clark’s unique spin on these devices, in which she claims that all cancer, AIDS, and most other diseases are due to a liver fluke, which her device supposedly “zaps.” Like these devices, the maker of GAC promises vague “immune system boosts,” but with the added twist that he claims that all disease is due to original sin (along, apparently, with the conventional alt-med “toxins,” diminished qi, and uncharacterized immune dysfunction). Amusingly, the Monsignor who created this device also disses Hulda Clark and advocates the use of laetrile and Linus Pauling’s orthomolecular medicine. The main difference is that he claims to have received the design for the device from God through a dream.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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The incredible shrinking vaccine-autism hypothesis shrinks some more

Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in.

Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part 3

I hadn’t planned on doing two vaccine posts with such a short interval between them, but all too often, as the they say in the weakest of the Godfather movies, I get pulled back in again. So, after noting last week that 2009 was shaping up–fortunately–to be a very bad year for antivaccinationists, I should have expected a counterattack from the antivaccine fringe. Indeed, the only thing that surprised me after the twin blows of the revelations about scientific fraud on the part of the originator of the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, Andrew Wakefield, and the resounding defeat of the first three test cases of the Autism Omnibus proceedings, was that it took longer than I had expected. True, a group had formed, proclaiming that “we support Dr. Andrew Wakefield.” Also true, the antivaccine activists at the Age of Autism have been working overtime to attack the Autism Omnibus as being hopelessly rigged. Indeed, our “old friend” Dr. Jay Gordon has even likened attempts to refute antivaccine pseudoscience to tobacco companies’ P.R. and astroturf campaigns back in the 1950s through 1980s to cast doubt on the strong scientific and epidemiological evidence showing that cigarettes cause lung cancer.

But those contortions of science, epidemiology, law, and logic were merely a warmup for the real counterattack. On February 25, Generation Rescue purchased this full page ad in USA Today:

GenRescue_ad

Unfortunately, the advertisement above was only the beginning. Generation Rescue managed to team up the chief progagandist for the antivaccine movement, David Kirby, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whom I have discussed before for his total support of the antivaccine movement. The question then becomes: Where would these two team up to spread their message against vaccines? Do you even have to ask?

Their twin articles appear on that repository of all things antivaccine, The Huffington Post, under the title Vaccine Court: Autism Debate Continues. As I will explain, these twin articles represent yet another example of what I have at times referred to as the “incredibly shrinking vaccine-autism hypothesis.”
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Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Senator Tom Harkin: “Disappointed” that NCCAM hasn’t “validated” more CAM

Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) owes me a new irony meter.

I’ll explain in a minute, but first you have to know why I even care about what Harkin says or does, given that he’s not my Senator. As you may recall, arguably no single legislator in the U.S. has done more to harm to the cause of promoting science- and evidence-based medicine than Tom Harkin. That’s because it was primarily through Harkin’s efforts that the National Institutes of Health, despite the fact that its scientists were not agitating for it, had the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) rammed down its throat in 1992, first as the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), then in 1998, when NIH Director Harold Varmus tried to place OAM under more scientific NIH control, by elevating OAM to a full and independent Center within the NIH. Thus was NCCAM born.

I’ve complained many times about how NCCAM funds studies that, let’s face it, are of pseudoscience and quackery (homeopathy, anyone?) and even more about how it promotes unscientific medical practices. I’ve argued time and time again that there is no research that is funded by NCCAM that couldn’t be dealt with as well or better by other Centers or Institutes within the NIH. I’ve even argued that NCCAM should be defunded and dismantled, allowing CAM grant applications to be evaluated by the most appropriate center, as has our fearless leader Steve Novella. Most vociferous of all has been my fellow SBM blogger Kimball Atwood, who has made similar arguments at even greater length. I’ve also pointed out Harkin and other CAM-friendly legislators created and managed to increase the funding of NCCAM to the tune of $120+ million a year not for the purpose of rigorous scientific evaluation of CAM practices, but rather to promote CAM and ultimately “integrate” it with scientific medicine. At this they have been enormously successful.

Let me clarify. What I meant is that NCCAM, along with the Bravewell Collaborative, has been very successful in popularizing CAM in medical academia; at “proving” that CAM works, not so much. Evidence that this is so comes from a recent observation that Senator Tom Harkin is very, very unhappy with NCCAM these days and has publicly said so recently, as pointed out by Lindsay Beyerstein, daughter of the late, great skeptical psychologist Barry Beyerstein. On Thursday, Harkin told a Senate panel, Integrative Care: A Pathway to a Healthier Nation, that he was disappointed that NCCAM had disproven too many alternative therapies. (His remarks begin about 17 minutes into the video on the webpage to which I linked.) In addition, Harkin’s statements have also been posted to his Senate blog:
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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Another new blogger for SBM

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve found another blogger for SBM, someone who will represent a viewpoint that I think is very important: That of the physician-in-training. So please welcome Tim Kreider to the stable. Tim is an MD/PhD student at a public university in the northeast US. He never paid much mind to pseudoscience until discovering The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe and other podcasts that now keep him company during long nights in lab. He practices his skeptical analysis on extracurricular lectures organized by a student interest group for integrative medicine on campus.

As a graduate student, Tim is investigating immune mechanisms in a mouse model of gastrointestinal helminth infection. As a medical student, he has no idea what specialty to pursue and would love advice. He loves to teach math and science and hopes to pursue a career in medical academia.

We’re very happy to have Tim on board. Given that one of my concerns is the infiltration of pseudoscience into the medical school curriculum, I consider it essential to have a medical student on board to give that perspective. Because of his academic load, Tim will be blogging only once a month, although I do hope to tease a little more out of him, as long as it doesn’t jeopardize his education.

Posted in: Announcements

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2009: Shaping up to be a really bad year for antivaccinationists

I will begin this post with a bit of an explanation. Between one and two weeks ago, there appeared two momentous news about the manufactroversy regarding vaccines and autism. No doubt, many SBM readers were expecting that I, as the resident maven of this particular bit of pseudoscience, would have been here last week to give you, our readers, the skinny on all of this. Unfortunately, as some know, my wife’s mother died, coincidentally enough, on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birthday and a day when one of those two momentous bits of news was released to the public, which is why I used one of my handful of posts written and then held in reserve. I’m back now, though, and I don’t think it’s too late to comment on these bits of news because now that over a week has gone by what I’ve seen has led me to draw some conclusions that I might not have been able to do, had I done my usual bit and been first off the mark (at least among SBM bloggers) discussing the story.

2008: The Best of Years for the Antivaccine Movement

But first, let’s take a look at last year. In 2008, Jenny McCarthy was the new and fresh celebrity face of the movement that believes that autism and all manner of other neurodevelopmental disorders are caused by vaccines and that the government and big pharma are suppressing The Truth. She had emerged in the fall of 2007 after having tried to erase from the Internet her previous involvement in the “Indigo Child” movement in preparation for becoming an “autism advocate” who could write a book that could land her on Oprah’s show. Thanks to her and, perhaps even more so to the star power of her boyfriend Jim Carrey, who is just as wrong about vaccines and medicine as Jenny is, the antivaccine movement came roaring into prominence in a way that it had never managed to pull off before. After all, let’s face it, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year and a famous comedian are far more “interesting” public figures for various media outlets to interview than previous celebrities who spearheaded the vaccine manufactroversy, such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or Don Imus and his wife Deirdre.

Indeed, Jenny’s combination of good looks and utter obnoxiousness led to her showing up all over the media in 2008. For example, on April 1 (appropriately enough), she appeared on Larry King Live! and shouted down physicians who had the temerity to tell her that her Google University knowledge was just plain wrong. The pinnacle of her influence came during the summer, when, having now supplanted J.B. Handley as the public face of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue and transforming GR into “Jenny McCarthy’s autism charity,” she led the “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC. True, at most there were several hundred people there, but it got wide news attention, and Jenny was all over the news. She rapidly followed it up by releasing a second book Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds and appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show yet again.
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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Another challenge to surgical dogma

Better late than never with this one.

The dogma that I’m referring to is the remaining practice of using NG tubes in anyone with upper gastrointestinal surgery (liver, stomach, pancreas, duodenum, proximal small intestine) and then placing a jejunostomy tube (a tube, also often called a J-tube, that goes into the jejunum, or the proximal part of the small intestine, through which feedings can be given). The rationale for this was that the peristalsis of the small bowel returns almost immediately; it’s the large bowel and stomach whose return of peristalsis is delayed. Consequently, liquid tube feedings, it was thought, could be given beyond the point of surgery into the small bowel because if there is one surgical dogma that the evidence generally supports and probably always will, it’s always better to use the gut for nutrition than to use total parenteral nutrition (TPN, or feeding by veins). Moreover, there was evidence that such feedings had a protective effect on the lining of the bowel, preventing a phenomenon known as bacterial translocation, in which bacteria could pass through the compromised lining of the bowel after surgical stress. The price, however, was the placement of a tube into the proximal intestine, a procedure that, while safe, was definitely not without complications, some of which (such as bowel perforation) could be serious and require reoperation.

Challenging this dogma is the largest multicenter randomized study yet looking at this question: Which is better, bowel rest (NPO) and J-tube feedings or just letting the patient eat the next day? The study comes out of Norway1 and involved 453 patients. Blinding, much less double blinding, was, as is the case in many surgical trials, not possible because of the very nature of the question being examined, but other than that the design of the study was about as strong as a surgeon could ask for. Basically, patients were randomized to a routine of NPO and J-tube feeding until flatus indicated return of bowel function versus normal food at will beginning on postoperative day one; the experimental design is summarized below:
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Science and Medicine, Surgical Procedures

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More evidence that CAM/IM advocates see health care reform as an opportunity to claim legitimacy

Four weeks ago (was it really that long?), I wrote one of my usual lengthy essays for this blog in which I analyzed two editorials published by some very famous advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM)/”integrative medicine” (IM). They included one in that credulous repository of all things antivaccine The Huffington Post (no, this isn’t about vaccines, but I can’t resist pointing out at every turn the antivaccine slant of that rather famous political blog) and in the Wall Street Journal. The first, published in HuffPo and written by Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Rustum Roy, was entitled Leaving the Sinking Ship, while the second added Dean Ornish to its team, switched from the highly liberal venue of hte previous article to the conservative WSJ, and was entitled “Alternative” Medicine Is Mainstream: The evidence is mounting that diet and lifestyle are the best cures for our worst afflictions. In doing so, advocates of unscientific and even pseudoscientific faith-based medical treatments seemingly covered the entire span of political thought, from highly liberal to highly conservative, with their message.

That message, as I have argued, along with Wally Sampson, Kimball Atwood, Val Jones, and Peter Lipson, is, to boil it down to its essence, this: The new Obama Administration has promised to make health care reform one of its top priorities, and CAM/IM advocates want to take advantage of this movement for reform as the “foot in the door” behind which they try to muscle their way in to be treated by the government as co-equal with established, science- and evidence-based medicine. How do they plan on doing this? As I have discussed before, they plan on doing this by coopting disease “prevention” strategies as being CAM/IM and using them as a Trojan horse. When the government brings the giant wooden horse into the fortress of government health care, along with the bona fide prevention strategies of diet and exercise a whole lot of woo will jump out of the belly of that horse and open the fortress doors to let in its comrades. Indeed, the same strategy can be seen in how CAM/IM advocates have coopted the Institute of Medicine with a joint conference.

In other words, because CAM/IM advocates have succeeded so well in tying the perfectly acceptable science- and evidence-based modalities of diet and exercise, as well as ghettoizing the respected pharmacology discipline of pharmacognosy by associating it with herbalism and, in essence, bringing it under the CAM umbrella, where it became unfairly and incorrectly tainted with its association with all the other woo that falls under the CAM/IM mantle, they expect that renewing an emphasis on diet and exercise by their definition and on their terms will lead to the opening of the door into the promised land of having their modalities be funded by the government. It’s a very conscious strategy, which is why Chopra et al’s articles so clearly tried to convince readers that diet and exercise are CAM/IM. Unfortunately, that they are able to do this with such success is in part because science- and evidence-based practitioners arguably underemphasize such health prevention strategies.

I learned of another salvo fired off by CAM/IM advocates through my somehow finding myself on the mailing list for The Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. family of medical journals. Unfortunately, one of the journals published by the Liebert group is the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. This particular e-mail was advertising an editorial written by a chiropractor named Daniel Redwood that spells out in the most detailed manner exactly how CAM/IM advocates plan on hijacking any health care reform that the Obama Administration might come up in order to persuade the government to fund what Wally frequently terms “sectarian medicine” and I simply like to call unscientific. The editorial is freely available to all (unlike the contents of JACM) and entitled Alternative and Complementary Medicine Should Have Role in New Era of Health Care Reform. It’s about as blatant a description of the goals of the CAM/IM movement as I have ever seen.
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