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Obesity, cancer, and chemotherapy

In medicine, particularly oncology, it’s often the little things that matter. Sometimes, however, the “little things” aren’t actually little; they just seem that way. I was reminded of this by a story that was circulating late last week in the national media, often under titles like “Obese cancer patients often shorted on chemo doses”, ”Are obese people with cancer getting chemotherapy doses too small for them?”, and “Obese Cancer Patients Not Getting Full Doses of Chemotherapy Drugs”. It’s also interesting to me because it stands in marked contrast to something I’ve written about a lot on this blog: The overtreatment of cancer. In this case, this story is about the undertreatment of cancer in patients who are obese, and it’s a problem that has definite adverse effects on an obese person’s odds of surviving cancer.

I’ve been aware of this issue for some time and had been thinking of blogging about it for at least three years. The reason is that the oncologist who is best known for sounding the alarm on this issue is Jennifer Griggs at the University of Michigan and, being local and all, I’ve seen her speak on the topic several times at local breast cancer conferences. Now that I work with a statewide breast cancer care quality improvement initiative, I’m becoming more aware of her work. Indeed, I was rather puzzled why this issue bubbled up enough to be reported widely on the national news last week when the Nature Clinical Oncology paper by Gary H. Lyman and Alex Sparreboom that drew attention to the issue was published in August, and the original American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) guidelines were published last year. Whatever the reason this issue has been getting more attention, it’s a good thing.
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Posted in: Cancer

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Is U.S. cancer care “in crisis,” as the Institute of Medicine proclaims?

Americans love to fight, traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle…When you, here, everyone of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser.

General George S. Patton, Jr. was famous for his flamboyance and aggressiveness going on the attack, among other things. He was also known for a number of pithy quotes made throughout his lifetime, particularly during World War II, such as the one above in which he declared how much Americans love to fight. I sometimes wonder whether he was more correct in that assessment than he knew in that we seem to view almost everything through the lens of war and a crisis that calls for a war. In medicine, for instance, we have the “war on cancer” and the “war on obesity.” We have a propensity for likening problems and their solutions to war, where the goal is to destroy the enemy.

Similarly, but less dramatic (although only slightly so), we have various crises. Indeed, Americans seem to love to compare problems to crises as much as they love to compare them to war. Of course, the two are closely related, as a crisis of some sort is a necessary prelude to a war. We can argue about the definition of a “crisis,” but one thing is certain. No matter how one defines it the word “crisis” implies an urgent problem and further implies that something must be done now—or at least very soon—to prevent the catastrophic consequences of that problem, which usually involve a breakdown of a current system. It was with these thoughts in mind that I approached the Institute of Medicine (IOM) consensus report released last week, Delivering High-Quality Cancer Care: Charting a New Course for a System in Crisis. It’s a behemoth of a report, weighing in at 360 pages, and it does indeed paint a picture of some very serious problems in cancer care that should be addressed. It is subdued in that it doesn’t engage in that oh-so-American tendency to declare “war” on every problem, but is cancer care “in crisis”? Of that, I’m not so sure, but it’s definitely got problems. But, as I’ve said, the system’s had problems for a long time, as the IOM itself documented in its 1999 report Ensuring Quality of Cancer Care, which concluded that “for many Americans with cancer, there is a wide gulf between what could be construed as the ideal and the reality of their experience with cancer care.” The report also recommended steps to improve cancer care and the evidence base for cancer care, and to overcome barriers of access to high-quality cancer care. As the introduction to the current report states:
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Posted in: Cancer

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Everything Causes Cancer

It’s likely you know someone who has bought into the notion that nutrition is everything, the source of all health and the cause of all illness. Nutrition is very important, to be sure, but it is only one of many possible causes of disease, and if you live in a Western industrialized nation you probably have adequate nutrition. The notion, however, that food can heal is powerfully alluring, and it makes great headlines. The result is that people who read the headlines for the latest food to avoid, or the latest ingredient that will make them live longer or stave off disease, seem to have an association for everything. Eating around them is to be constantly told that food X is good for you and will prevent Y, or that some other food should be avoided because it causes Z.

Red peppers will help prevent cancer and help you lose weight. Garlic will help prevent heart disease and aids in iron metabolism. Cayenne pepper prevents strokes. Peaches prevent heart disease and cancer. In fact- think of any food at random and type “random food health benefits” into Google and chances are you will be rewarded with a list of the amazing health benefits of whatever food you wish.

My usual response when offered such advice is – you know, food is healthy for you. I recommend you eat food every day. Food is full of nutrition, essential vitamins and minerals, and will give you energy. If you don’t eat food, your health with dramatically suffer. But don’t eat too much food – that’s not healthful.

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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Nutrition

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When urgency to cure beats research ethics, bad things happen

Editor’s note: Just for your edification, here’s a “bonus” post. True, you might have seen this recently elsewhere, but it’s so appropriate for SBM that I couldn’t resist sharing it with those of you who might not read the other source where this was published recently. :-)

I’ve written a lot about Stanislaw Burzynski and what I consider to be his unethical use and abuse of clinical trials. Before that, I used to regularly write about Mark Geier and his unethical use and abuse of IRBs and clinical trials. Both doctors use their own IRBs stacked with their own cronies to rubberstamp scientifically and ethically dubious studies. Mark Geier got away with it for years. Stanislaw Burzynski got away with it for decades and, apparently, is still getting away with it to some extent. (His IRB is chaired by an old Baylor crony of his from the 1970s, and he has been cited for numerous problems with his IRBs.) I’d like to contrast how their unethical research, in which Mark Geier and his son David subjected autistic children to chemical castration with Lupron to decrease testosterone levels and allegedly make mercury easier to chelate (to them mercury was bound by testosterone, something that doesn’t happen under physiological conditions but requires organic solvents) and Stanislaw Burzynski administered an unproven cancer chemotherapy (antineoplastons) to hundreds of patients over the years and charged them for it, compares to a recent case in the news.

The case has been mentioned by PZ Myers. It happened that it involves the same sort of tumors that Stanislaw Burzynski claims to be able to cure, namely brain tumors. It happened at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) and involved two very prominent neurosurgeons there, a former head of the department Dr. J. Paul Muizelaar and Dr. Rudolph J. Schrot, who were found to have violated university’s faculty code of conduct with their experimental work. When you read this part of the story, you’ll shiver. At least, I did:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics

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E-cigarettes: The growing popularity of an unregulated drug delivery device

This post is not about vaccines (for a change).

However, I deem it appropriate to mention that one of the topics that I blog most frequently about is vaccines and how the antivaccine movement pushes pseudoscience and quackery based on its apparently implacable hatred of vaccines. (You’ll see why very shortly.) It seems almost as long as my interest in the topic since I first noticed that the antivaccine movement acquired its very own celebrity spokesperson in Jenny McCarthy, who at least since 2007 has been promoting outrageous quackery and pseudoscience associated with her antivaccine views. To her, vaccines are chock full of “toxins” and all sorts of evil humors that will turn your child autistic in a heartbeat and in general “steal” your “real” child away from you the way she thinks vaccines “stole” her son Evan away from her. Indeed, among other “achievements,” she’s written multiple books about autism in which vaccines feature prominently as a cause, led a march on Washington to “green our vaccines” and has been the president of the antivaccine group Generation Rescue for the last few years. None of this stopped ABC from foolishly hiring her to join the regular cast on The View beginning in a few short weeks.

Because I occasionally check on what Jenny McCarthy is up to, I noticed a couple of weeks ago that she had been hired to be a celebrity spokesperson for blu™ e-cigarettes. Here she is, hawking the blu™ Starter Pack:

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Posted in: Cancer, Medical devices, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Cunnilingus, Michael Douglas’s Cancer, and the HPV Vaccine

Conservative Christians are calling for banning oral and anal sex between consenting adults, claiming that the practices allow for the spread of disease. Radio host Brian Fischer says that a rise in head, neck and throat cancers “among millennials” is a direct result of the influence of “Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.” He compares oral sex and homosexual sex to drug trafficking, pedophilia and bestiality. He hasn’t decided how offenders should be punished but he suggests either issuing summonses like parking tickets or putting them into programs akin to drug rehab. He says Liz Cheney (the daughter of former Vice President Cheney) is “not a patriot” because she may support gay marriage.

Those of us who want the government to stay the hell out of our bedrooms will gladly ignore such rants, but the health risks of sexual practices are real. Michael Douglas recently shocked the world by announcing that cunnilingus could have caused his throat cancer. He was right, it could have.

HPV causes several kinds of cancer

Most head and neck cancers are caused by tobacco and alcohol, but researchers believe that up to 80% of oropharyngeal cancers are due to HPV (human papilloma virus) infection. The cause can be confirmed by testing biopsy samples for HPV DNA. The incidence of throat cancer caused by HPV is rising rapidly (a 225% increase from 1988 to 2004) and has been attributed to an increase in oral sex. It is estimated that by 2020 HPV will cause more oropharyngeal cancers than cervical cancers in the US. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Vaccines

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A Skeptical Look at Screening Tests

I’m going to follow Mark Crislip’s example and recycle my presentation from The Amazing Meeting last week, not because I’m lazy or short on time (although I am both), but because I think the information is worth sharing with a larger audience.

We’ve all had screening tests and we’re all likely to have more of them, but there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about what screening tests can and can’t do. Screening tests are done on populations of asymptomatic people and must be distinguished from diagnostic tests done on individual patients who have symptoms. Some tests are excellent for diagnostic purposes but are not appropriate for screening purposes.

We’re constantly being admonished to get tested for one thing or another. A typical example was a recent Dear Abby column. She got a letter from a woman who had been screened for kidney disease and learned that she had a mild decrease in kidney function. Abby was shocked to learn that 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, and she advised her readers to get their kidneys checked. This was terrible advice. It superficially seems like good advice, because if you have something wrong with your kidneys, you’d want to know about it, right? In fact, if there was anything wrong anywhere in your body, you’d want to know about it. By that logic, it might seem advisable to test everyone for everything. But that would be stupid. It would find lots of false positives, it would create anxiety by picking up harmless variants and anomalies that never would have caused problems, it would be expensive, and it would do more harm than good.
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Stanislaw Burzynski: The Early Years, part 1

It’s been a week now since I got back from TAM, where Bob Blaskiewicz and I tag-teamed a talk about a man who has become a frequent topic of this blog, namely Stanislaw Burzynski. I’ve been meaning to come back to the topic of Burzynski, but from a different angle. There hasn’t been much in the way of news lately other than the release of Eric Merola‘s most recent propaganda “documentary,” Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2, but, believe it or not, there remain lots of loose ends that I haven’t covered. This time around, the angle is this: How did Burzynski get his start? His is a story that goes back over 46 years, and in the beginning he seemed to be a promising young academic physician and a perfectly respectable researcher. So what happened? How did he evolve from a seemingly idealistic young Polish physician to what he has been for many years now?

I started to think about this when I was writing my post about “alternative cancer cures” circa 1979, because one of the three articles written by Gary Null and various coauthors that appeared in Penthouse magazine in the fall that year, The Suppression of Cancer Cures, was dedicated primarily to Stanislaw Burzynski and his “antineoplastons,” which at the time were new news, so to speak. However, Null’s article, even though it was contemporaneous with Burzynski’s having recently struck out on his own and started his own clinic, didn’t reveal everything that I was interested in learning. Actually, the more I read, the more I realize that no source really reveals everything that I want to know about that time period in the 1970s and early 1980s that produced the Stanislaw Burzynski that we know and don’t love today. Available sources all tend to be either pro-Burzynski, Burzynski himself, or vague in the extreme about what happened. Fortunately, my research for my TAM talk will serve multiple purposes. Since the talk was so brief and required me to cover 40+ years of history in a mere 20 minutes, there was a lot left out. I hate to let all that research go to waste; so I’m going to use it for an intermittent series of blog posts.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Politics and Regulation

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Doing Eric Merola a favor…

Believe it or not, I’m going to do Eric Merola (who doesn’t particularly like me, to the point of thinking, apparently, that I’m a white supremacist who doesn’t like evidence but does like to eat puppies) a favor. Having been away at TAM and otherwise occupied hanging out with fellow skeptics and, more stressfully, getting ready to give a talk in front of as many as 1,000 people on Saturday, somehow I missed this. Well, actually, I didn’t miss it, but somehow I forgot to post it, even though it would have only take a few minutes. Then when I got home I still forgot to post it. Now there are only three days left (four, counting today) for me to do it; so I’d better get to it. My having forgotten to do this is particularly amazing given the subject of my main stage talk at TAM, our old buddy Stanislaw Burzynski. I’m even doing it as an extra “bonus” post on a day that I don’t usually post on SBM.

I wonder if Merola will appreciate the favor I’ve done him?

Eric Merola, as you recall, is a filmmaker who was responsible for two propaganda films about Stanislaw Burzynski, the dubious cancer doctor who has used “antineoplastons” to treat cancer without having published any decent clinical trial evidence that they do what he claims. Back in 2010, Merola released the first of a not-so-dynamic duo of films, the first of which was called Burzynski The Movie: Cancer Is A Serious Business (or B1, as I like to call it). The movie didn’t do much for a year or more, but then über-quack Joe Mercola promoted it, and somehow Eric Merola landed an interview with Dr. Oz on his radio show. The sequel, the slightly less pretentiously titled Burzynski: Cancer Is A Serious Business, Part 2 (or B2, as I like to call it), was then released June 1 on various pay-per-view modes. As has been pointed out, it’s no better than the first, and it features direct attacks on the skeptics who had the temerity to criticized Burzynski and Merola over the last couple of years.
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Posted in: Cancer, Science and the Media

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Do clinical trials work? It depends on what you mean by “work”

Introduction

(Skip to the next section if you want to miss the self-referential blather about TAM.)

As I write this, I’m winging my way home from TAM, crammed uncomfortably—very uncomfortably—in a window seat in steerage—I mean, coach). I had been thinking of just rerunning a post and having done with it, sleeping the flight away, to arrive tanned, rested, and ready to continue the battle against pseudoscience and quackery at home, but this seat is just too damned uncomfortable. So I might as well use the three and a half hours or so left on this flight to write something. If this post ends abruptly, it will be because I’ve run out of time and a flight attendant is telling me to shut down my computer in those cloyingly polite but simultaneously imperious voices that they all seem to have.

I had thought of simply recounting the adventures of the SBM crew who did make it out to TAM to give talks at workshops and the main stage and to be on panels, but that seems too easy. Even easier, I could simply post my slides online. But, no, how on earth can I reasonably expect Mark Crislip to post while he’s at TAM if I’m too frikkin’ lazy to follow suit? I’m supposed to lead by example, right, even if what comes out is nearly as riddled with spelling and grammar errors (not to mention the occasional incoherent sentence) as a Mark Crislip post? Example or not, lazy or not, I would be remiss if, before delving into the topic of today’s post, I didn’t praise my fellow SBM bloggers who were with me, namely Steve Novella, Harriet Hall, and Mark Crislip, for their excellent talks and insightful analysis. Ditto Bob Blaskiewicz, with whom I tag-teamed a talk on everybody’s favorite cancer “researcher” and doctor, Stanislaw Burzynski. It’ll be fun to see the reaction of Eric Merola and all the other Burzynski sycophants, toadies, and lackeys when Bob’s and my talks finally hit YouTube. Sadly, we’ll have to wait several weeks for that. (Hmmm. Maybe I will post those slides later this week.)
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials

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