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Faith Healing

Faith healing is based on belief and is about as far as you can get from science-based medicine, but it is not exempt from science. If it really worked, science would be able to document its cures and would be the only reliable way to validate its effectiveness. Miraculous cures continue to be reported on a regular basis: what are we to make of them? In the Healing Rooms Ministry of Bethel Church in Redding, California, people regularly claim to be healed of cancer, broken bones, multiple sclerosis and many other ailments. Page after page of testimonials of cures are listed on their website. Are these cures real? If not, what is going on?

Amanda Winters, a journalist doing a series of articles on Bethel Church, interviewed me for a scientific view of these faith healings. She asked me some very incisive questions and understood my answers. She wrote what I thought was a balanced article, quoting me fairly and at more length than reporters usually allow.

Her article features a patient who believed his flat feet would be healed (bones would crack and form an arch). Healers poked him, blew a shofar at his feet, and covered him with a blanket when he collapsed on the floor. When he got up, his feet were unchanged. But

his faith was not shaken, he said, because he felt so loved and maybe the physical healing was secondary to the spiritual experience he had. (more…)

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality

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Radiation from medical imaging and cancer risk

ResearchBlogging.orgScience-based medicine consists of a balancing of risks and benefits for various interventions. This is sometimes a difficult topic for the lay public to understand, and sometimes physicians even forget it. My anecdotal experience suggests that probably surgeons are usually more aware of this basic fact because our interventions generally involve taking sharp objects to people’s bodies and using steel to remove or rearrange parts of people’s anatomy for (hopefully) therapeutic effect. Ditto oncologists, who prescribe highly toxic substances to treat cancer, the idea being that these substances are more toxic to the cancer than they are to the patient. Often they are only marginally more toxic to the cancer than to the patient. However, if there’s one area where even physicians tend to forget that there is potential risk involved, it’s the area of diagnostic tests, in particular radiological diagnostic tests, such as X-rays, fluoroscopy, computed tomography (CT) scans, and the variety of ever more powerful diagnostic studies that have proliferated over since CT scans first entered medical practice in the 1970s. Since then, the crude images that the first CT scans produced have evolved, thanks to technology and ever greater computing power, to breathtaking three dimensional-views of the internal organs. Indeed, just since I finished medical school back in the late 1980s, I’m continually amazed at what these new imaging modalities can accomplish.

The downside of these imaging modalities is that most of them require the use of X-rays to produce their images. True, over the last 15 years or so MRI, which uses very strong magnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation rather than ionizing radiation to produce its images, has become increasingly prevalent. MRI is great because it produces more contrast between different kinds of soft tissue than CT scans do. However, CT tends to be superior for examining calcified organs, such as bone. (The breast surgeon in me notes that breast MRI is pretty much useless for detecting microcalcifications, an important possible indicator for cancer.) Also, MRI scans require a prolonged period of laying still in a very tight tube, which is a problem for patients with any degree of claustrophobia, although “open” MRIs are becoming increasingly available. More importantly for the quality of images, because they require a patient to lie more still than a CT, MRIs tend to be prone to more motion artifacts, which is perhaps why CT is more frequently used to image the abdomen other than large solid organs such as the liver. The point is that, although MRI is becoming more prevalent, CT scans aren’t going away any time soon. They have different strengths and weaknesses as imaging modalities and are therefore best suited for different, albeit overlapping, sets of indications.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health

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Another wrinkle to the USPSTF mammogram guidelines kerfuffle: What about African-American women?

A while back I wrote about rethinking how we screen for breast cancer using mammography. Basically, the USPSTF, an independent panel of physicians and health experts that makes nonbinding recommendations for the government on various health issues, reevaluated the evidence for routine screening mammography and concluded that for women at normal risk for breast cancer, mammography before age 50 should not be recommended routinely and should be ordered on an individualized basis, and that routine formalized breast self-examination (BSE) should also not be routinely recommended. In addition, for women over 50, it was recommended that they undergo mammography every other year, rather than every year. These recommendations were based on a review of the literature, including newer studies.

To say that these new recommendations caused a firestorm in the breast cancer world is an understatement. The USPSTF was accused of misogyny; opponents of health care reform leapt on them as evidence that President Obama really is preparing “death panels”; and HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius couldn’t run away from the guidelines fast enough. Meanwhile, a society I belong to (the American Society of Breast Surgeons) issued a press release accusing the USPSTF of sending us back to the “pre-mammography” days when, presumably women only found breast cancer after it had grown to huge size (just like Europe and Canada, I guess, given that the recommendations for screening there closely mirrors those recommended by the USPSTF). Meanwhile, in the most blatant example of protecting its turf I’ve seen in a very long time, the American College of Radiology went full mental jacket with a press release that was as biased as it was insulting. Meanwhile some physicians even likened the recommendations to going back to being like Africa, Southeast Asia and China as far as breast screening goes in that he actually speculated that he’d now become very busy treating advanced, neglected breast cancers. Unfortunately, as Val pointed out, the communication of the USPSTF guidelines to the public was almost a perfect case study in how not to do it. Even though the science was in general sound and the USPSTF recommendations were in essence close to identical to what other industrialized nations do, they were communicated in just such a way as to produce maximum misunderstanding and misuse for political purposes.

Despite all the hysterical and in some cases disingenuous attacks on the new guidelines, there is one criticism that actually resonates with me because I work at a cancer center in a very urban environment with a large population of African-American women. Last week I heard on NPR this story:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Public Health

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Cell phones and cancer again, or: Oh, no! My cell phone’s going to give me cancer! (revisited)

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s been about a year and a half since I’ve written about this topic; so I thought I’d better update the disclaimer that I wrote at the beginning:

Before I start into the meat of this post, I feel the need to emphasize, as strongly as I can, four things:

  1. I do not receive any funding from the telecommunications industry in general, or wireless phone companies in particular. None at all. In other words, I’m not in the pocket of “big mobile” any more than I am in the pocket of big pharma.
  2. I don’t own any stock in telecommunications companies, other than as parts of mutual funds in which my retirement funds are invested that purchase shares in many, many different companies, some of which may or may not be telecommunications companies.
  3. None of my friends or family work for cell phone companies.
  4. I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I really don’t.

There. That’s better. Hopefully that will, as it did last time, serve as a shield against the “shill” argument, which is among the frequent accusations I hear whenever I venture into this particular topic area. So, as I did back in 2008, I just thought I’d clear that up right away in order (hopefully) to preempt any similar comments after this post. Unfortunately, as I have known for a long time, I’m sure someone will probably show his or her lack of reading comprehension and post one of those very criticisms of me. It’s almost inevitable, either here or elsewhere. Posting such disclaimers never seems to work against the “pharma shill” gambit when I write about vaccines or dubious cancer cures. Even so, even after nearly ten years involved in skepticism and promoting science-based medicine, hope still springs eternal.

There are two reasons that I think the issue of mobile phones and cancer needs an update on our blog: First, it has been a year and a half since I last wrote about it. At that time I castigated Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, who at that time was director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute for what I viewed as fear mongering over cell phones and cancer based on at best flimsy evidence. Second, there have been two fairly high profile studies looking at whether there is a link between mobile phone use and cancer. One of these our fearless leader Steve Novella has already discussed, but there was another one that he didn’t see because it didn’t get quite as much publicity, possibly because the corresponding author is based in Korea. I will take this opportunity to discuss them both.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Public Health

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Cancer prevention: The forgotten stepchild of cancer research?

The New York Times has been periodically running a series about the “40 years’ war” on cancer, with most articles by Gina Kolata. I’ve touched on this series before, liking some parts of it, while others not so much. In particular, I criticized an article one article that I thought to be so misguided about how the NIH grant system leads researchers to “play it safe” and how we could cure cancer if we could just fund “riskier” research that I had to write an extended screed about the misconceptions in the article. The latest installment, Medicines to Deter Some Cancers Are Not Taken, also by Kolata, is much better in that it discusses a problem at the heart of cancer, namely that we have developed drugs that can decrease the risk of specific cancers but they are not as widely used as they could be.

The first part of the article contrasts a seeming incongruity:

Many Americans do not think twice about taking medicines to prevent heart disease and stroke. But cancer is different. Much of what Americans do in the name of warding off cancer has not been shown to matter, and some things are actually harmful. Yet the few medicines proved to deter cancer are widely ignored.

Take prostate cancer, the second-most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, surpassed only by easily treated skin cancers. More than 192,000 cases of it will be diagnosed this year, and more than 27,000 men will die from it.

And, it turns out, there is a way to prevent many cases of prostate cancer. A large and rigorous study found that a generic drug, finasteride, costing about $2 a day, could prevent as many as 50,000 cases each year. Another study found that finasteride’s close cousin, dutasteride, about $3.50 a day, has the same effect.

This is indeed a contrast. Think about it. Millions of Americans take statins, for instance, to lower their cholesterol and thereby try to prevent the complications of elevated cholesterol, such as heart disease, vascular disease, and strokes. Yet, for at least two common cancers, there are proven effective drugs that will lower the risk of cancer considerably with a side effect profile at least as favorable as that of statins.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Herbs & Supplements, Nutrition, Politics and Regulation

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Suzanne Somers’ Knockout: Dangerous misinformation about cancer (part 1)

If there’s one thing I’ve become utterly disgusted with in the time since I first became interested in science-based medicine as a concept, its promotion, and the refutation of quackery and medical pseudoscience, it’s empty-brained celebrities with an agenda. Be it from imbibing the atmosphere within the bubble of woo-friendly southern California or taking a crash course at the University of Google and, through the arrogance of ignorance, concluding that they know more than scientists who have devoted their lives to studying a problem, celebrities believing in and credulously promoting pseudoscience present a special problem because of the oversized soapboxes they command. Examples abound. There’s Bill Maher promoting anti-vaccine pseudoscience, germ theory denialism, and cancer quackery on his show Real Time with Bill Maher and getting the Richard Dawkins Award from the Atheist Alliance International in spite of his antiscience stances on vaccines and what he sneeringly calls “Western medicine.” Then there are, of course, the current public faces of the anti-vaccine movement, Jenny McCarthy and her boyfriend Jim Carrey, the former of whom thinks it’s just hunky dory (or at least doesn’t appear to be the least bit troubled) that her efforts are contributing to the return of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases because she apparently thinks that’s what it will take to make the pharmaceutical companies change their “shit” product (her words), and the latter of whom spreads conspiracy theories about vaccines and contempt on people suffering from restless leg syndrome. Finally, there’s the grand macher of celebrity woo promotion, Oprah Winfrey, who routinely promotes all manner of medical pseudoscience, be it “bioidentical” hormones, the myth that vaccines cause autism (even hiring Jenny McCarthy to do a blog and develop a talk show for her company Harpo Productions), or other nonsense, such as Christiane Northrup urging Oprah viewers to focus their qi to their vaginas for better sex.

Unfortunately, last week the latest celebrity know-nothing to promote health misinformation released a brand new book and has been all over the airwaves, including The Today Show, Larry King Live, and elsewhere promoting it. Yes, I’m talking about Suzanne Somers, formerly known for her testimonial of having “rejected chemotherapy and tamoxifen” for her breast cancer, as well as her promotion of “bioidentical hormones,” various exercise devices such as the Thighmaster and all manner of supplements. Her book is entitled Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer–And How to Prevent Getting It in the First Place. It is described on the Random House website thusly:
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Cancer, Science and the Media

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Bill Maher endorses cancer quackery

Over the last five years or so, I’ve often asked, “Is Bill Maher really that ignorant?” I’ve come to the conclusion that he is, and a couple of weeks ago laid out the evidence why right here on this very blog. (Lately Maher has been issuing Tweets that call people who get flu shots “idiots.”) Indeed, I even included in the post perhaps the most hilariously spot-on riposte to Maher’s crankery. This occurred when Maher proclaimed that he never gets the flu and wouldn’t get the flu on an airplane, which his guest Bob Costas to exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, come on, Superman!”

Bob Costas won my respect that day. My favorite part was when Maher looked at his guests, who were shifting in their seats, all embarrassed and unsure of what to say, and observed, “You all look at me as though I’m crazy.”

Why, yes, Bill, we do. Let’s put it this way. When Age of Autism likes you, you have a serious problem when it comes to being credible about medical science.

In that same post, I complained about Maher’s being awarded the Richard Dawkins Award by the Atheist Alliance International (AAI). I liken giving Bill Maher an award that lists “advocates increased scientific knowledge” anywhere in its criteria, not to mention being named after Richard Dawkins, to giving Jenny McCarthy an award for public health, given that, at least when it comes to medicine, Maher is anti-science to the core. Along the way, I’ve ruffled the feathers of some of both Dawkins’ and Maher’s fans.

I regret nothing.

Not only do I regret nothing, but on September 18, a mere two weeks before the AAI Convention, Maher provided me with more ammunition. In fact, this is probably the most blatant bit of crankery I’ve seen from Maher in a long time. Watch and learn. The “alternative medicine” nuttery begins at around the 0:50 mark:

Laetrile? Really? Laetrile?? How 1970s cancer quackery!
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Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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An open letter to Dr. J. Douglas Bremner

Peter Lipson wrote a post last week entitled Before You Trust That Blog…, which was a criticism of Dr. J. Douglas Bremner’s blog Before You Take That Pill. Dr. Bremner was not pleased, and posted a rebuttal entitled Response to Peter Lipson MD of “Science” Based Blogs, My Blog Does Not Suck, Yours Does. Given the kerfuffle and my role as managing editor of SBM, I felt the need to put my two cents in, which is why I’m posting this open letter to Dr. Bremner. This letter started as a much briefer response that I was going to e-mail to Dr. Bremner, but as I wrote it grew and grew to the point where I decided that, given the public nature of the disagreement between Dr. Lipson and Dr. Bremner, I might as well make my commentary public too. Consider it a bonus post from me. I still plan a post for my usual slot on Monday. In the meantime, here’s my open letter:
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Pharmaceuticals, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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The price of cancer quackery

I don’t have much to add to this one, as it’s a tragic tale. Shadowfax, a blogging ER doc, relates to us what happens when cancer patients rely on quackery like the Gerson protocol instead of scientific medicine:

This was a young woman, barely out of her teens, who presented with a tumor in her distal femur, by the knee. This was not a new diagnosis — it had first been noted in January or so, and diagnosed as a Primary B-Cell Lymphoma. By now, the tumor was absolutely huge, and she came to the ER in agonizing pain. Her physical exam was just amazing. The poor thing’s knee (or more precisely, the area just above the knee) was entirely consumed by this massive, hard, immobile mass about the size of a soccer ball. She could not move the knee; it was frozen in a mid-flexed position. She hadn’t been able to walk for months. The lower leg was swollen and red due to blood clots, and the worst of the pain she was having seemed due to compression of the nerves passing behind the knee. It was like something you see out of the third world, or historic medical textbooks. I have never seen its like before.

So we got her pain managed, of course, and I sat down to talk to her and her family.

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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Medical Ethics

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Screening Tests – Cumulative Incidence of False Positives

It’s easy to think of medical tests as black and white. If the test is positive, you have the disease; if it’s negative, you don’t. Even good clinicians sometimes fall into that trap. Based on the pre-test probability of the disease, a positive test result only increases the probability by a variable amount. An example: if the probability that a patient has a pulmonary embolus (based on symptoms and physical findings) is 10% and you do a D-dimer test, a positive result raises the probability of PE to 17% and a negative result lowers it to 0.2%.

Even something as simple as a throat culture for strep throat can be misleading. It’s possible to have a positive culture because you happen to be an asymptomatic strep carrier, while your current symptoms of fever and sore throat are actually due to a virus. Not to mention all the things that might have gone wrong in the lab: a mix-up of specimens, contamination, inaccurate recording…

Mammography is widely used to screen for breast cancer. Most patients and even some doctors think that if you have a positive mammogram you almost certainly have breast cancer. Not true. A positive result actually means the patient has about a 10% chance of cancer. 9 out of 10 positives are false positives.

But women don’t just get one mammogram. They get them every year or two. After 3 mammograms, 18% of women will have had a false positive. After ten exams, the rate rises to 49.1%. In a study of 2400 women who had an average of 4 mammograms over a 10 year period, the false positive tests led to 870 outpatient appointments, 539 diagnostic mammograms, 186 ultrasound examinations, 188 biopsies, and 1 hospitalization. There are also concerns about changes in behavior and psychological wellbeing following false positives.

Until recently, no one had looked at the cumulative incidence of false positives from other cancer screening tests. A new study in the Annals of Family Medicine has done just that. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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