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Alternative medicine use and breast cancer (2012 update)

[Editor's note: It's a holiday here in the U.S.; consequently, here is a "rerun" from my other super not-so-secret other blog. It's not a complete rerun. I've tweaked it a bit. If you don't read my other blog, it's new to you. If you do, it's partially new to you. See you all next week with brand spankin' new material. It also (Ih hope) complement's Scott's excellent post from Thursday discussing the same issue and the same paper, but from a different perspective.]

As a cancer surgeon specializing in breast cancer, I have a particularly intense dislike reserved for cancer quacks, which I have a hard time containing at times when I see instances of such quackery applied to women with breast cancer. I make no apologies. These women are, after all, the type of patients I spend all my clinical time taking care of and to whose disease my research has been directed for the last 13 years or so. That’s why I keep revisiting the topic time and time again. Unfortunately, over the years, when it comes to this topic there’s been a depressing amount of blogging material. Indeed, Scott Gavura took a bite out of this particularly rotten apple just a few days ago. Even though he handled the discussion quite well, I thought it would be worthwhile for a breast cancer clinician to take a look. Our perspectives are, after all, different, and this is an issue that, from my perpective, almost can’t be discussed too often.

One question that comes up again and again is, “What’s the harm?” Basically, this question boils down to asking what, specifically, is the downside of choosing quackery over science-based medicine. In the case of breast cancer, the answer is: plenty. The price of foregoing effective therapy can be death; that almost goes without saying. In fact, it can be a horrific and painful death. It is, after all, cancer that we’re talking about. Aside from that, however, the question frequently comes up just how much a woman decreases her odds of survival by avoiding conventional therapy and choosing quackery. It’s actually a pretty hard question to answer. The reason is simple. It’s a very difficult topic to study because we as physicians have ethics. We can’t do a randomized trial assigning women to treatment or no treatment, treatment or quacke treatment, and then see which group lives longer and by how much. If a person can’t see how unethical that would be without my having to explain it, that person is probably beyond explanations. (As an aside, I can’t help but point out that a randomized trial of not vaccinating versus vaccinating is unethical for exactly the same reason; physicians can’t knowingly assign subjects to a group where he knows they will suffer harm. There has to be clinical equipoise.) There’s no doubt that foregoing effective treatment causes great harm.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Health Fraud

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Rejecting cancer treatment: What are the consequences?

One of the points I’ve tried to emphasize through my contributions to Science-Based Medicine is that every treatment decision requires an evaluation of risks and benefits. No treatment is without some sort of risk. And a decision to decline treatment has its own risks. One of the challenges that I confront regularly as a pharmacist is helping patients understand a medication’s expected long-term benefits against the risks and side effects of treatment. This dialogue is most challenging with symptomless conditions like high blood pressure, where patients face the prospect of immediate side effects against the potential for long-term benefit. One’s willingness to accept side effects is influenced, in part, by and understanding of, and belief in, the overall goals of therapy. Side effects from blood-pressure medications can be unpleasant. But weighed against the reduced risk of catastrophic events like strokes, drug therapy may be more acceptable. Willingness to accept these tradeoffs varies dramatically by disease, and are strongly influenced by patient-specific factors. In general, the more serious the illness, the greater the willingness to accept the risks of treatment.

As I’ve described before, consumers may have completely different risk perspectives when it comes to drug therapies and (so-called) complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). For some, there is a clear delineation between the two: drugs are artificial, harsh, and dangerous. Supplements, herbs and anything deemed “alternative”, however, are natural, safe, and effective. When we talk about drugs, we use scientific terms – discussing the probability of effectiveness or harm, and describing both. With CAM, no tentativeness or balance may be used. Specific treatment claims may not be backed up by any supporting evidence at all. On several occasions patients with serious medical conditions have told me that they are refusing all drug treatments, describing them as ineffective or too toxic. Many are attracted to the the simple promises of CAM, instead. Now I’m not arguing that drug treatment is always necessary for ever illness. For some conditions where lifestyle changes can obviate the need for drug treatments, declining treatment this may be a reasonable approach – it’s a kick in the pants to improve one’s lifestyle. Saying “no” may also be reasonable where the benefits from treatment are expected to be modest, yet the adverse effects from treatments are substantial. These scenarios are not uncommon in the palliative care setting. But in some circumstances, there’s a clear medical requirement for drug treatment – yet treatment is declined. This approach is particularly frustrating in situations where patients face very serious illnesses that are potentially curable.  This week is the World Cancer Congress in Montreal and on Monday there were calls for patients to beware of fake cancer cures, ranging from laetrile, to coffee enemas, to juicing, and mistletoe. What are the consequences of using alternative treatments, instead of science-based care, for cancer? There are several studies and a recent publication that can help answer that question. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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The mammography wars heat up again (2012 edition)

One issue that keeps coming up time and time again for me is the issue of screening for cancer. Because I’m primarily a breast cancer surgeon in my clinical life, that means mammography, although many of the same issues come up time and time again in discussions of using prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening for prostate cancer. Over time, my position regarding how to screen and when to screen has vacillated—er, um, evolved, yeah, that’s it—in response to new evidence, although the core, including my conclusion that women should definitely be screened beginning at age 50 and that it’s probably also a good idea to begin at age 40 but less frequently during that decade, has never changed. What does change is how strongly I feel about screening before 50.

My changes in emphasis and conclusions regarding screening mammography derive from my reading of the latest scientific and clinical evidence, but it’s more than just evidence that is in play here. Mammography, perhaps more than screening for any disease, is affected by more than just science. Policies regarding mammographic screening are also based on value judgments, politics, and awareness and advocacy campaigns going back decades. To some extent, this is true of many common diseases (i.e., that whether and how to screen for them are about more than just science), but in breast cancer arguably these issues are more intense. Add to that the seemingly eternal conflict between science and medicine communication, in which a simple message, repeated over and over, is required to get through, versus the messy science that tells us that the benefits of mammography are confounded by issues such as lead time and length bias that make it difficult indeed to tell if mammography—or any screening test for cancer, for that matter—saves lives and, if it does, how many. Part of the problem is that mammography tends to detect preferentially the very tumors that are less likely to be deadly, and it’s not surprising that periodically what I like to call the “mammography wars” heat up. This is not a new issue, but rather a controversy that flares up periodically. Usually this is a good thing.

And these wars just just heated up a little bit again late last week.
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Public Health

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Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski’s “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy”: Can he do what he claims for cancer?

Last week, I wrote a magnum opus of a movie review of a movie about a physician and “researcher” named Stanislaw Burzynski, MD, PhD, founder of the Burzynski Clinic and Burzynski Research Institute in Houston. I refer you to my original post for details, but in brief Dr. Burzynski claimed in the 1970s to have made a major breakthrough in cancer therapy through his discovery of anticancer substances in the urine that he dubbed “antineoplastons,” which turned out to be mainly modified amino acids and peptides. Since the late 1970s, when he founded his clinic, Dr. Burzynski has been using antineoplastons to treat cancer. Over the last 25 years or so, he has opened a large number of phase I and phase II clinical trials with little or nothing to show for it in terms of convincing evidence of efficacy. Worse, as has been noted in a number of places, high doses of antineoplastons as sodium salts are required, doses so high that severe hypernatremia is a concern.

Although antineoplastons are the dubious cancer therapy upon which Dr. Burzynski built his fame, they aren’t the only thing he does. Despite the promotion of the Burzynski Clinic as using “nontoxic” therapies that “aren’t chemotherapy” by “natural medicine” cranks such as Joe Mercola and Mike Adams, Dr. Burzynski’s dirty little secrets, at least as far as the “alternative medicine” crowd goes, are that (1) despite all of the attempts of Dr. Burzynski and supporters to portray them otherwise antineoplastons are chemotherapy and (2) Dr. Burzynski uses a lot of conventional chemotherapy. In fact, from my perspective, it appears to me as though over the last few years Dr. Burzynski has pivoted. No longer are antineoplastons the center of attention at his clinic. Rather, these days, he appears to be selling something that he calls “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy.” In fact, it’s right there in the first bullet point on his clinic’s webpage, underlined, even! Antineoplastons aren’t even listed until the third bullet point.

But what is “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” according to Dr. Burzynski? Here is how it is described:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Hope and hype in genomics and “personalized medicine”

“Personalized medicine.” You’ve probably heard the term. It’s a bit of a buzzword these days and refers to a vision of future medicine in which therapies are much more tightly tailored to individual patients than they currently are. That’s not to say that as physicians we haven’t practiced personalized medicine before; certainly we have. However it has only been in the last decade or so that our understanding of genomics, systems biology, and cell signaling have evolved to the point where the vision of personalized medicine based on each patient’s genome and biology might be achievable within my lifetime.

I was thinking about personalized medicine recently because of the confluence of several events. First, I remembered a post I wrote late last year about integrating patient values and experience into the decision process regarding treatment plans. Second, a couple of months ago, Skeptical Inquirer published an execrably nihilistic article by Dr. Reynold Spector in Skeptical Inquirer in which he declared personalized medicine to be one of his “seven deadly medical hypotheses,” even though he never actually demonstrated why it is deadly or that it’s even really a hypothesis. Come to think of it, with maybe–and I’m being very generous here–one exception, that pretty much describes all of Dr. Spector’s “seven deadly medical hypotheses”: Each is either not a hypothesis, not deadly, or is neither of the two. Third, this time last week I was attending the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting in Orlando. I don’t really like Orlando much (if you’re not into Disney and tourist traps, it’s not the greatest town to hang out in for four days), but I do love me some good cancer science. One thing that was immediately apparent to me from the first sessions on Sunday and perusing the educational sessions on Saturday was that currently the primary wave in cancer research is all about harnessing the advances in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, and systems and computational biology, as well as the technologies such as next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques to understand the biology of each cancer and thereby target therapies more closely to what biological abnormalities drive each cancer. You can get an idea of this from the promotional video the AACR played between its plenary sessions:

Which is actually a fairly good short, optimistic version of my post Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? As I mentioned before, with this year being the 40th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, as December approaches expect a lot of articles and press stories asking that very question, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about this this year.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation

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Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame? (Revisited)

(NOTE: There is now an addendum to this post.)

(NOTE #2: The videos of Robert O. Young’s interview with Kim Tinkham have been removed, as I predicted in this post that they would be. Fortunately, I downloaded copies before he managed to do that. Part 6 appears to be still there–for now.)

(NOTE #3: It was announced on the Facebook page Caring for Kim that the subject of this post, Kim Tinkham, passed away on December 7, 2010 in the late afternoon. Although it was not revealed what kind of cancer she died of, Tinkham almost certainly died from metastatic breast cancer. Quackery appears to have claimed another victim.)

I hate stories like this. I really do. I hate them with a burning passion that makes it hard for me to see straight when I first find out about them.

In fact, you might even say that stories like this are a major part of the reason why I do what I do, both here and elsewhere. They’re a major part of the reason why I’ve recently branched out into public speaking, something that used to terrify me beyond belief but that lately I’ve become at least competent at–sometimes even not bad at all. Sadly, the story I’m about to tell is one I’ve told before, most recently at the Lorne Trottier Science Symposium, where I gave a talk on cancer cure “testimonials,” although at the time I gave the talk the story’s outcome, although predictable, was not yet known.

Now it is.

The woman to whom I refer is named Kim Tinkham, who was diagnosed with breast cancer over three and a half years ago. Regular readers may recall that Kim Tinkham achieved fame not long after that when she was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in an episode about The Secret, an episode I discussed posts entitled The Oprah-fication of Medicine and On the nature of “alternative” medicine cancer cure testimonials. I don’t want to discuss the utter nonsense that is The Secret in any detail here. However, for those unfamiliar with this particular bit of New Age woo, it’s important to point out that The Secret’s “Law of Attraction” takes the germ of a reasonable idea (namely that one’s attitudes and wishes influence whether one gets what one wants in life, something that’s been known for millennia) and goes off the deep end of woo by proclaiming that, in essence, you can get anything you want by wanting it badly enough and thinking positive thoughts. Basically “The Secret” is that you have the power to “attract” good to yourself by thinking happy thoughts (hence “the law of attraction,” which, according to Secret adherents always works). It’s an idea that resonates in so much of “alternative medicine,” such as German New Medicine or Biologie Totale. Of course, the implication of “Secret” thinking is that, if you don’t get what you want, it’s your fault, an idea that also resonates with so much “alternative” medicine, where a frequent excuse for failure is that the patient either didn’t follow the regimen closely enough or didn’t want it badly enough.

Basically, The Secret is what inspired Kim Tinkham to eschew all conventional therapy for her breast cancer and pursue “alternative” therapies, which is what she has done since 2007. Before I discuss her case in more detail, I’m going to cut to the chase, though.

This weekend, I learned that Kim Tinkham’s cancer has recurred and that she is dying. On Saturday, a reader of my other blog sent me an e-mail that informed me:
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Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Science and the Media

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Oprah’s buddy Dr. Christiane Northrup and breast thermography: The opportunistic promotion of quackery

Fibrocystic breasts

As many readers know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. What that generally means at our cancer center and in the rest of the “real world” is that, during the month of October, extra effort is made to try to raise awareness of breast cancer, to raise money for research, and promote screening for cancer. Unfortunately, what Breast Cancer Awareness Month means around the Science-Based Medicine blog is that a lot of breast cancer-related pseudoscience and outright quackery will be coming at us fast and furious. There’s no way, of course, that I can deal with it all, but there’s one area of medical pseudoscience related to breast cancer that I just realized that none of us has written about on SBM yet. Actually, it’s not really pseudoscience. At least, the specific technology isn’t. What is pseudoscience is the way it’s applied to breast cancer and in particular the way so many “alternative” medicine and “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) practitioners market this technology to women. The technology is breast thermography, and the claim is that it’s far better than mammography for the early detection of breast cancer, that it detects cancer far earlier.

I’ve actually been meaning to write about thermography, the dubious claims made for it with regard to breast cancer, and the even more dubious ways that it’s marketed to women. In retrospect, I can’t believe that I haven’t done so yet. The impetus that finally prodded me to get off my posterior and take this on came from what at the time was an unexpected place but in retrospect shouldn’t have been. You’ve met her before quite recently when SBM partner in crime Peter Lipson took her apart for parroting anti-vaccine views and even citing as one of her sources anti-vaccine activist Sherri Tenpenny. I’m referring, unfortunately, to one of Oprah Winfrey’s stable of dubious doctors, Dr. Christiane Northrup. Sadly, Peter’s example of her promotion of vaccine pseudoscience is not the first time we at SBM have caught Dr. Northrup espousing anti-vaccine views. We’ve also harshly criticized her for her promotion of “bioidentical hormones” and various dubious thyroid treatments. However, Dr. Northrup is perhaps most (in)famous for her advocating on Oprah’s show the use of Qi Gong to direct qi to the vagina, there apparently to cure all manner of female ills and promote fantastic orgasms in the process. This little incident ought to tell you nearly all that you need to know about her. Even Oprah looked rather embarrassed in the video in which Dr. Northrup led her audience in directing all that qi goodness “down below.”

What brought Dr. Northrup to my attention again was my having joined her e-mail list. As you might imagine, I’m on a lot of e-mail lists, ranging from that of Mike Adams, to Generation Rescue, to Joe Mercola and beyond. I do it all for you, in order to have the blogging material come to me rather than my having to seek it out. True, the price is that my e-mail in box is frequently clogged with quackery, but it’s a small price to pay. This time around, Dr. Northrup’s e-mail brought my attention to a post of hers, Best Breast Test: The Promise of Thermography. It was truly painful to read, and I consider it inexcusable that someone who claims to be an advocate of “women’s health” could write something that reveals such ignorance. But, then, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised after her recent flirtation with anti-vaccine views. If it isn’t already complete, Dr. Northrup’s journey to the Dark Side is damned close to complete. You’ll see what I mean right from her very introduction:
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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The mammography wars heat up again

PRELUDE: THE PROBLEM WITH SCREENING

If there’s one aspect of science-based medicine (SBM) that makes it hard, particularly for practitioners, it’s SBM’s continual requirement that we adjust what we do based on new information from science and clinical trials. It’s not easy for patients, either. To lay people, SBM’s greatest strength, its continual improvement and evolution as new evidence becomes available, can appear to be inconsistency, and that seeming inconsistency is all too often an opening for quackery. Even when there isn’t an opening for quackery, it can cause a lot of confusion; some physicians are often resistant to changing their practice. It’s not for nothing that there’s an old joke in medical circles that no outdated medical practice completely dies until a new generation of physicians comes up through the ranks and the older physicians who believe in the practice either retire or die. There’s some truth in that. As I’ve said before, SBM is messy. In particular, the process of applying new science as the data become available to a problem that’s already as complicated as screening asymptomatic people for a disease in order to intervene earlier and, hopefully, save lives can be fraught with confusion and difficulties.

Certainly one of the most contentious issues in medicine over the last few years has been the issue of screening for various cancers. The main cancers that we most commonly subject populations to routine mass screening for include prostate, colon, cervical, and breast cancer. Because I’m a breast cancer surgeon, I most frequently have to deal with breast cancer screening, which means, in essence, screening with mammography. The reason is that mammography is inexpensive, well-tested, and, in general, very effective.

Or so we thought. Last week, yet another piece of evidence to muddle the picture was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and hit the news media in outlets such as the New York Times (Mammograms’ Value in Cancer Fight at Issue).
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation

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Avastin and metastatic breast cancer: When science-based medicine collides with FDA regulation

One of the most frustrating aspects of taking care of cancer patients is that in general, with only a few specific exceptions, we do not have good curative therapies for patients with stage IV cancer, particularly solid tumors. Consequently, patients with stage IV disease are viewed as “incurable” because, the vast majority of the time, they are incurable. Over the years, we have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at patients with stage IV disease, largely with dissapointing results. That’s not to say that the few specific exceptions to which I alluded are not a reason for hope. After all, patients with colorectal cancer and liver metastases used to have a median survival of around 6 months, but these days, with newer chemotherapeutic regimens like FOLFOX plus Avastin, median survival has more than tripled. While expecting to live less than two years is cold comfort to cancer patients with this particular clinical situation, the prognosis is far better than it was.

Of course, I specifically mentioned Avastin because it’s been in the news a lot recently with respect to my area of clinical specialty, breast cancer. Specifically, beginning in July there started appearing a spate of stories about the FDA considering revoking the approval of Avastin for advanced breast cancer based on recent studies that demonstrate that it does not prolong survival in these patients. Many lay people and patients find this reconsideration of Avastin to be quite puzzling, given that the drug was granted accelerated approval in 2008 and has since gone on to be used fairly widely. Given that the case of Avastin in breast cancer is rapidly becoming a classic case study of how messy science-based medicine can be when practiced in the public eye and debated among pharmaceutical companies, the government, and patient advocacy groups.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Abortion and breast cancer: The manufactroversy that won’t die

Editor’s note: Given the controversial nature of the topic, I think it’s a good time to point out my disclaimer before this post. Not that it’ll prevent any heated arguments or anything…

The Science-Based Medicine blog was started slightly over two years ago, and this is a post I’ve wanted to do since the very beginning. However, since January 2008, each and every time I approached this topic I chickened out. After all, the topic of abortion is such a hot button issue that I seriously questioned whether the grief it would be likely to cause is worth it. (Take the heat generated any time circumcision is discussed here and ramp it up by a factor of 10.) On the other hand, there is so much misinformation out there claiming a link between abortion and the subsequent development of breast cancer when the data simply don’t support such a link, and the name of this blog is Science-Based Medicine. Why should I continue to shy away from a topic just because it’s so religiously charged? More importantly, in my discussion how can I focus attention on the science rather than letting the discussion degenerate into the typical flamefest that any discussion of abortion on the Internet (or anywhere else, for that matter) will almost inevitably degenerate into. Indeed, such discussions have a depressing near-inevitability of validating Godwin’s law not once but many times — usually within mere hours, if not minutes.

My strategy to try to keep the discussion focused on the science will be to stay silent about my own personal opinions regarding abortion and, other than using it to introduce my trepidation about discussing the topic, the religious and moral arguments that fuel the controversy. That’s because the question of whether abortion is the murder of a human being, merely the removal of a lump of tissue, or somewhere in between is a moral issue that, at least as far as I’m concerned, can’t ever be definitively answered by science. That is why it is not my purpose to sway readers towards any specific opinion regarding the morality of abortion. Indeed, I highly doubt that any of our readers care much about my opinions on the matter. On the other hand, I would hope that I’ve built up enough trust over the last two years that our readers will be interested in my analysis of the existing data regarding something another related issue. It is my purpose to try to dispel a myth that is not supported by science, specifically the claim that elective abortion is causes breast cancer or is a very strong risk factor for its subsequent development. That is a claim that can be answered by science and, for the most part, has been answered by science with a fairly high degree of certainty. Despite the science against it, the medical myth that abortion causes breast cancer or vastly increases the risk of it is, like the myth that vaccines cause autism, a manufactroversy that won’t die, mainly because it is largely fueled by religious beliefs that are every bit as immune to science as the ideological beliefs that drive the antivaccine movement.
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Posted in: Cancer, Obstetrics & gynecology, Religion, Surgical Procedures

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