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If you’re sick, even the ridiculous can seem sublime

Let’s say you have cancer. And let’s say you’re really, really sick of having cancer. And let’s say that you’re also pretty tired of scans, chemo, radiation, hair loss, nausea. And let’s say you’re not really sick and tired of living, but actually pretty happy to be alive.

Finally, let’s say someone says that they can get rid of your cancer, without all of those pesky side-effects. It’s a win-win, no?

No.

It’s easy to believe in promises that are congruent with our wishes. That’s what makes human beings so easy to deceive. A case in point is the VIBE Machine, a discredited quackery device. This thing was marketed until about a year ago. Not surprisingly, Orac has written about this thing in his Friday Dose of Woo. Stephen Barrett, the King of Quack-Busters, has also tracked the sordid history of this rip-off. The device was recalled back in 2008, so this shouldn’t even be a story anymore, except that word of the device still circulates among cancer patients and their friends. The company’s website is down, which is good, but this thing is still out there.

At least one website is still promoting it in detail. The website is, needless to say, a whole lot of words that make no sense:

The VIBE Machine works on five different levels by using a medium electromagnetic field. In this field, a high voltage pulse is added along with ozone. The charge is placed at a negative voltage which is being transmitted to an antenna designed to twist the magnetic field. It is then routed through noble and inert gases. These gases are in a plasma state, varying in frequencies which relate to human cellular frequencies. Plasma is found between the protons and electrons of all cells in the human body. By oscillating this plasma state, the cells are energized by the Vibe Machine. Disease is a state found in non-vibrating, non-charged, or non-energized cells. The VIBE Machine brings the vibrational level of your body back to its natural state of being. It is a technological breakthrough in enhancing the human body by helping it reach optimum vibration and energy.

This is not even wrong.

But that’s not the real problem here. The real problem is that I, not having cancer, read it and see, “blah, blah, blah, let me steal money from cancer patients”, but cancer patients are more likely to read it and see, “HOPE HOPE HOPE”. In fact, I spoke to one patient who said, “yeah, I heard it was recalled, but why should I trust the FDA?”

This is the strength of quackery, the weakness of real medicine. Real medicine offers hope, but also reality. Quackery isn’t so limited.

As physicians we need to become better at explaining the real meaning of hope—the hope for cure, the hope for living, the hope for comfort when that isn’t possible. And we need to give our patients the tools to protect themselves from scams like this. This means when we get mad, we don’t take it out on the patient who is, after all, just trying to get better.

But you—you, Dear Reader—also share in this responsibility. You must make sure not to tell your brother-in-law how cool some new thing sounds. You must help your friend with a bad disease to navigate their illness, avoiding the rocks of quackery. You must not shrug and say, “what’s the harm?” This is not a one-person job. Get on it.

Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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5 thoughts on “If you’re sick, even the ridiculous can seem sublime

  1. kausikdatta says:

    But you—you, Dear Reader—also share in this responsibility. You must make sure not to tell your brother-in-law how cool some new thing sounds. You must help your friend with a bad disease to navigate their illness, avoiding the rocks of quackery. You must not shrug and say, “what’s the harm?” This is not a one-person job. Get on it.

    Saah, yes, saah! :D

    Every day among friends and family and strangers who would listen to me, I am trying to do this – cut through swathes of lies, deceit and misinformation that peddlers of woo liberally spread to attract their victims (yes, I see the woo-infested as ‘victims’) and exploit their vulnerabilities. But it is an uphill task, and sometimes I despair. As David mentioned in the previous post, people have very entrenched false beliefs, particularly when those beliefs appear to provide hope in an otherwise dismal situation.

    But I am soldiering on, and sites such as SBM are for me great sources of information, as well as inspiration.

  2. Joe says:

    Thanks, I enjoyed that post.

    It used to be said that you should never discuss religion or politics in public. To that, we must now add sCAM, especially where I am (near Amherst and Northampton, MA). There are four great colleges here, and UMass’s main campus. With this density of highly educated faculty, there is great demand for quackery.

    My neighbors include a homeopath, and acupuncturist, and herbalist and someone overflowing with diet advice. Although there are only a couple score naturopaths in MA, there are two within walking distance of my apartment! I feel so blessed.

    Nonetheless, I had a rare victory recently when my brother’s friend said he had an appointment with a chiropractor to treat a stiff neck. I told him that letting a chiro touch his neck could leave him seriously dead. His eyes grew wide as I explained vertebral artery dissection, then he made an appointment with a doctor and had a proper diagnosis and safe, effective treatment.

  3. Manduca says:

    Joe:

    I live near you, and I have actually lost a friend because I tried to explain that, for acupuncture, the better the control, the smaller the effect.

    The next time something like this came up, I sat silently while another person told how her acupuncturist treated her headaches by needling a particular meridian because it would affect her liver, which was obviously the main influence on her personality. Oh, and she was certain this was not placebo, because she didn’t really like the guy.

    Tell me how you managed to persuade your friend not to get his neck manipulated without turning him away from you forever.

  4. LovleAnjel says:

    I think there is a difference between people who ‘believe in’ sCAM, and those who just hear about it. Not everyone is deeply invested. Plenty of people have just passing knowledge, and they’re the ones that are more open to education.

  5. Joe says:

    @Manduca on 01 Sep 2009 at 8:13 am

    Sorry for your loss.

    Concerning my success convincing my friend, there are three factors. First, as LovleAnjel on 01 Sep 2009 at 9:51 am suggests- he is not the New Age, true-believer type. Second, as he said at the time- he knows I am a “serious scientist” so he respects my opinion. Third, I was able to give a detailed description of the problem.

    Harriet Hall has a post on this with an excellent, graphical depiction of what happens http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=94 You can also check other posts on chiropractic, here. There are several good links for the layperson here http://www.ebm-first.com/?cat=36 There is also a classic article at Quackwatch http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/chirostroke.html

    Offhand, I think chiropractic and acupuncture are the most common, elaborate CAM rituals, and involve physical contact, so they provide the most false-positives.

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