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Skepticism versus nihilism about cancer and science-based medicine

Last Friday, Mark Crislip posted an excellent deconstruction of a very disappointing article that appeared in the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the flagship publication of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). I say “disappointing,” because I was disappointed to see SI (Skeptical Inquirer, not Sports Illustrated) publish such a biased, poorly thought out article, apparently for the sake of controversy. I’m a subscriber myself, and in general enjoy reading the magazine, although of late I must admit that I don’t always read each issue cover to cover the way I used to do. Between work, grant writing, blogging, and other activities, my outside reading, even of publications I like, has declined. Perhaps SI will soon find itself off my reading list. Be that as it may, I couldn’t miss the article that so irritated Mark, because it irritated me as well. There it was, emblazoned prominently on the cover of the March/April 2011 issue: Seven Deadly Medical Hypotheses. I flipped through the issue to the article to find out that this little gem was written by someone named Reynold Spector, MD. A tinge of familiarity going through my brain, I tried to think where I had heard that name before.

And then I remembered.

Dr. Spector, it turns out, first got on my nerves about a year ago, when he wrote an article for the January/February 2010 issue of SI entitled The War on Cancer: A Progress Report for Skeptics. I remember at that time being irritated by the article and wanting to pen a discussion of the points raised but don’t recall why I never actually did. It was probably a combination of the fact that SI doesn’t publish its articles online until some months have passed after the paper version has been released and perhaps my laziness about having to manually transcribe with my own fingers any passages of text that I might want to cite. By the time the article was available online, I forgot about it and never came back to it–until now. I should therefore, right here, right now, publicly thank Mark (and, of course, Dr. Spector) for providing me the opportunity to revisit that article in the context of piling on, so to speak, Dr. Spector’s most recent article. After all, Deadly Hypothesis Seven (as Dr. Spector so cheesily put it) is:

From a cancer patient population and public health perspective, cancer chemotherapy (chemo) has been a major medical advance.

Dr. Spector then takes this opportunity to cite copiously from his 2010 article, sprinkling “(Spector, 2010)” throughout the text like powdered sugar on a cupcake. There’s the opening I needed to justify revisiting an article that’s more than a year old! And what fantastic timing, too, hot on the heals of my post from a couple of weeks ago entitled Why haven’t we cured cancer yet?
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Hidden Cancer Cure

Last week David Gorski wrote a excellent post about why we have not yet cured cancer. It turns out, cancer is a category of many individual diseases that are very challenging to treat. We have made steady progress, and many people with cancer can now be cured – but we have not discovered the one cure for all cancer. I personally am not convinced that we will discover a single cure for all cancer, at least not with any extrapolation of current technology. But if we continue to make progress as we are cancer will become an increasingly treatable and even curable type of disease.

This topic also brings up a meme that has been around for a long time – the notion that scientists have already cured cancer but the cure is being suppressed by the powers that be, to protect cancer as a source of income. In the comments to David’s article, Zuvrick writes:

So we can find a cure. It has probably happened multiple times. But nobody wants to cure cancer. Too many researchers earn a living seeking a cure by remaining inside a narrow, restricted channel of dogma. Their institutions get grant money and survive from the funding. Big Pharma makes big bucks selling chemotherapy drugs, surgeons remove tumors and various radiation devices employ radiologists and firms making these machines. MRI and CT scans would not be needed for cancer if Rife technology were available today.

I have heard or read some version of this claim since before I entered medical school.  Superficially it may sound like profound wisdom (cynicism is a cheap way to sound wise) – but the idea collapses under the slightest bit of logical scrutiny.

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Posted in: Cancer

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Why haven’t we cured cancer yet?

Why haven’t we cured cancer yet?

If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we cure cancer?

If we can harness the atom, why can’t we cure cancer?

How many times have you heard these questions, or variants thereof? How many times have you asked this question yourself? Sometimes, I even ask this question myself. Saturday was the two year anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law from a particularly nasty form of breast cancer, and, even though I am a breast cancer surgeon, I still wonder why there was nothing in the armamentarium of science-based medicine that could save her from a several month decline followed by an unpleasant death. That’s why, to me at least, the timing of the publication of a study examining the genome of prostate cancer that was published in Nature and summarized in this Science Daily news story was particularly apt. Performed as part of the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Genome Project, the study undertook complete genome sequencing of seven advanced and aggressive prostate cancers. The results, as ERV put it, revealed what can be describe as a “train wreck.”

Personally, I’d describe it as looking as though someone threw a miniature grenade into the nucleus of a prostate epithelial cell. You’ll see what I mean shortly.

Of course, although that image does give you an idea of the chromosomal chaos in the heart of prostate cancer cells, it is inaccurate in that it implies a sudden explosion, after which the damage is done, and if there’s one thing we know about cancer it’s that in most cases it takes many years for a normal cell to progress to a cancer cell fully capable of metastasizing and killing its host. I’ve written in detail about the complexity of cancer before, of course, and have even pointed out before that when President Nixon launched the “war on cancer” 40 years ago scientists had no idea how difficult it would be. Indeed, before I discuss the current study, it’s probably useful to reiterate a bit why, in order to put the study in context.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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Complementary and alternative medicine in hospice care

A number of news outlets (e.g. Bloomberg Business Week, MSN.Com, US News, etc) have recently reported that use of complementary and alternative therapies (CAT) is widespread in hospice care facilities. This is based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control, Complementary and Alternative Therapies in Hospice: The National Home and Hospice Care Survey, Untied States, 2007. According to most news reports, about 42% of hospice care providers offer some kind of CAT.

I was initially inclined to find this a little worrisome. In my own field of veterinary medicine, advocates of alternative therapies are prominent among the organizers of the nascent hospice care movement. And while I am strongly supportive of better and more available veterinary hospice care, the involvement of CAM advocates raises the concern that animals at the end of their life might receive ineffective palliative care, or be denied the benefits of conventional treatments by some CAM providers, who often characterize “allopathic” treatments as “unnatural” and harmful.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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Overdiagnosis

Dr. H. Gilbert Welch has written a new book Over-diagnosed: Making People Sick in the Pursuit of Health, with co-authors Lisa Schwartz and Steven Woloshin.  It identifies a serious problem, debunks medical misconceptions and contains words of wisdom.

We are healthier, but we are increasingly being told we are sick. We are labeled with diagnoses that may not mean anything to our health. People used to go to the doctor when they were sick, and diagnoses were based on symptoms. Today diagnoses are increasingly made on the basis of detected abnormalities in people who have no symptoms and might never have developed them. Overdiagnosis constitutes one of the biggest problems in modern medicine. Welch explains why and calls for a new paradigm to correct the problem. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer

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Breast implants and anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL): Is there a link?

I must admit that I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with breast implants. On the one hand, as a breast cancer surgeon, I see them as a major benefit to my patients who are unfortunate enough to require mastectomy in order to control their disease. The armamentarium of techniques for reconstructing breasts after mastectomy generally falls into one of two categories, either various form of muscle flaps or breast implants. However, some women are, for various reasons, not eligible for various muscle flap reconstructions. That leaves either breast implants–or nothing. Certainly, some women are perfectly fine with no reconstruction after mastectomy, but many, if not most, women are not. For these women, it would be difficult to overstate how much of a boon to body image and self-esteem reconstruction can be, particularly given how much better at it plastic surgeons have become over the last couple of decades.

On the other hand, breast implants make my life as a breast cancer surgeon more difficult for a variety of reasons. First, they tend to make mammography more difficult by obscuring part of the breast, thus decreasing the sensitivity of mammography. Good mammography facilities can get around this to some extent by using various displacement techniques, but it takes some effort, and it doesn’t completely correct the problems that implants cause for mammographic screening. Moreover, when a woman who has had implants placed for cosmetic reasons comes to see me for a breast mass or an abnormal mammogram, the presence of the implants can complicate treatment decisions. If the abnormality or mass is close to the implant, we worry about rupturing it in the process, particularly if the implant is not below the pectoralis major muscle. Even when the implant is subpectoral, the muscle overlying it frequently ends up being so stretched out that the muscle in essence forms part of the capsule around the implant and ends up being a lot thinner than you might expect. Let me tell you, my anal sphincter tone is always much tighter when operating near an implant, particularly a silicone implant. True, I’m perfectly capable of removing an implant if it’s accidentally ruptured, but such an outcome is not desirable, particularly with silicone implants, where cleaning up the leaking silicone can be difficult.

It doesn’t help that silicone breast implants have been the subject of controversy since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when thousands of women with silicone implants reported a variety of ailments, including autoimmune disease and a variety of other systemic illnesses. These reports led to a rash of lawsuits and, ultimately, the banning of silicone breast implants for general use in 1992. After that, silicone breast implants were only permitted in women requiring breast reconstruction or women enrolled in clinical trials studying breast implants. This ban was partially lifted in 2006, as evidence accumulated that the claims of autoimmune diseases and increased cancer risk due to silicone breast implants were not supported by clinical and scientific evidence and two products made by Allergan Corp. (formerly Inamed Corp.) and Mentor Corp. Not surprisingly, given that the furor over silicone breast implants as a cause of autoimmune and other systemic diseases is based on about as much solid scientific evidence as the antivaccine furor over vaccines as a cause of the “autism epidemic,” there was widespread criticism of this decision. Even now, it is not difficult to find articles about breast implants with titles like Breast Implants: America’s Silent Epidemic and websites like the Humantics Foundation and Toxic Breast Implants . I do note, however, that the number of such sites and articles does appear to be declining and, at least to my impression, seems to have decreased markedly over the last 10 years or so.

Having reviewed the literature and found evidence for a link between silicone breast implants and the systemic diseases attributed to them to be incredibly weak at best, I had little problem with the FDA’s decision. Actually, the only thing I had a problem with at the time, my opinions of how breast implants interfere with breast cancer detection and treatment notwithstanding, is that the FDA was probably being more cautious than the evidence warranted after 14 years.

Was I wrong?
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Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Molecular breast imaging (MBI): A promising technology oversold in a TED Talk?

Occasionally, there are topics that our readers want — nay, demand — that I cover. This next topic, it turns out, is one of them. It’s a link to a TED Talk. I’m guessing that most of our readers have either viewed (or at least heard of) TED talks. Typically, they are 20-minute talks, with few or no slides, by various experts and thought leaders. Many of them are quite good, although as the TED phenomenon has grown I’ve noticed that, not unexpectedly, the quality of TED Talks has become much more uneven than it once was. Be that as it may, beginning shortly after it was posted, readers of both this blog and my other super-not-so-secret other blog started peppering me with links to a recent TED Talk by Dr. Deborah Rhodes at the Mayo Clinic entitled A tool that finds 3x more breast tumors, and why it’s not available to you.

At first, I resisted.

After all, I’ve written about the issues of screening mammography, the USPSTF guideline changes (here, too), the early detection of cancer (including lead time and length time bias, as well as the Will Rogers effect), and a variety of other topics related to the early detection of breast cancer, such as overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Moreover, to put it bluntly, there really isn’t anything radically new in Dr. Rhodes’ talk, at least not to anyone who’s been in the field of breast cancer for a while. Certainly, there’s no new conceptual breakthrough in breast imaging and screening described. As I will discuss in more depth later in this post, there’s an interesting application of newer, smaller, and more sensitive detectors with a much better spatial resolution. It’s cool technology applied to an old problem in breast cancer, but something radical, new, or ground-breaking? Not so much. What Dr. Rhodes describes in her talk is the sort of device that, when I read about it in a medical journal, produces a reaction along the lines of, “Nice technology. Not ready for prime time. I hope it works out for them, though. Could be good.” So it was with molecular breast imaging (MBI), which is the topic of Dr. Rhodes’ talk. So I continued to resist for about two or three weeks.

Then our very own Harriet Hall sent me the link. I cannot resist Harriet. When she suggests that perhaps I should blog about a topic, it’s rare that my response would be anything other than, “Yes, ma’am. How soon would you like that post and how many words?” I keed, of course, but only just. The best I could come up with was a wishy-washy “But this isn’t really anything all that new,” which is true enough, but the way Dr. Rhodes tried to sell the audience on the idea of her technology brings up a lot of issues important to our audience. I also thought it was important to put this technology in perspective. So here I go. First, I’ll start by describing what really set my teeth on edge about Dr. Rhodes’ talk. Then I’ll go to the primary literature (namely her brand, spankin’ new article in Radiology describing the technology) and discuss the technique itself.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Science and the Media

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Old drugs, new tricks

What does honey bee colony collapse disorder have to do with a potential new cancer treatment?

They both relate – in a convoluted manner – to an old antibacterial drug called nitroxoline.

True to my devotion as a natural product pharmacologist, I’m proud to say that new life would not have come to nitroxoline had not a fungal natural product called fumagillin been studied as an antiangiogenic anticancer drug – one that inhibits the formation of new blood vessels.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, History, Pharmaceuticals

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A Disconnect between cell phone fears and science

Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family by Devra Davis, PhD is touted as a book about the issue of cell phones and health. It is instead a tract that conspiracy theorists will love that sheds no objective light on the often confusing scientific data in this area. The tag line on the jacket sets the tone: The TRUTH about cell phone RADIATION. What the INDUSTRY has done to hide it, and how to PROTECT your FAMILY. In the area of EMF and health, there are a certain number of studies that appear to find biological “effects”. This is perfect fodder for alarmists like Davis, who ignore the fact that virtually none of these “effects” have been reproduced in follow up studies. If you were expecting an objective review of the often confusing scientific data in this area, you should avoid this book.

Disconnect focuses almost exclusively on studies that support its alarmist conclusions while either ignoring or falsifying information about studies showing no harm. The quality of scientific studies varies greatly. Disconnect is highly selective and totally biased in discussing only studies that support its point of view, it rejects contrary studies accepted by the majority of mainstream scientists as the product of some vast conspiracy, and it completely misstates the findings of key studies that find no harm from cell phones. She interviewed only a relatively small group of dissident scientists who are outside of the mainstream. The book is completely lacking in objectivity.

Major Factual Misstatements

There are so many things wrong in Disconnect that it is difficult to know where to begin. We will start by reviewing a few of the most blatant examples of how it misrepresents key findings of some of the most important cell phone studies.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Epidemiology

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A New Perspective on the War against Cancer

 Myths and misconceptions about cancer abound. Oncologists are frequently criticized for torturing patients by burning, cutting and poisoning without making any real progress in the war against cancer. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist and cancer researcher, tries to set the record straight with his new book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  

It is a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works and how it developed, how we learned to randomize, do controlled trials, get informed consent, use statistics appropriately, and how science can go wrong. It is so beautifully written and so informative that when I finished it I went back to page 1 and read the whole thing again to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I enjoyed it just as much the second time.

 Mukherjee says

It will be a story of inventiveness, resilience, and perseverance against what one writer called the most “relentless and insidious enemy” among human diseases. But it will also be a story of hubris, arrogance, paternalism, misperception, false hope, and hype, all leveraged against an illness that was just three decades ago widely touted as being “curable” within a few years. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, History

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