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.
Dying of cancer can be a horrible way to go, but as a cancer specialist I sometimes forget that there are diseases that are equally, if not more, horrible. One that always comes to mind is amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a motor neuron disease whose clinical course is characterized by progressive weakness, muscle atrophy and spasticity, with ultimate progression to respiratory muscles leading to difficulty breathing and speaking (dysarthria) and to the muscles controlling swallowing. The rate of clinical course is variable, often beginning with muscle twitching in an arm or a leg or slurring of speech. Ultimately, however, ALS progresses to the loss of ability to move, speak, eat, or breathe. The most common cause of death is from respiratory failure, usually within three to five years after diagnosis, although there is the occasional outlier with a less malignant form of the disease with a slower course of progression who can live a long time, such as Steven Hawking.
In other words, ALS is a lot like cancer in some ways. It is a progressive, fatal disease that usually kills within a few years at most. On the other hand, it is different from cancer in that, at least for many cancers we actually do have effective treatments that prolong life, in some cases indefinitely. In contrast the most effective treatment we currently have for ALS is a drug (riluzole) that is not particularly effective—it prolongs life by months—and can be best described as better than nothing, but not by a whole lot. So it is not surprising that ALS patients, like cancer patients, become desperate and willing to try anything. This is completely understandable, but sometimes this desperation leads to activities that are far more likely to do harm than good. I was reminded of this when I came across a post in the antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, referring to an article in The Scientist entitled Medical Mavericks. The fortuitous posting of this story, which was apparently designed to try to show that it’s not as crazy as critics have said to be treating autistic children with “Miracle Mineral Solution” (MMS) (which is a bleach) given that the introduction explicitly mentioned Kerri Rivera and the patient described in the article used sodium chlorite to treat his ALS, provided me the opening to discuss a group whose existence and advocacy brings up a complex tangle of issues that boil down to questions of how far patient autonomy should be allowed to go. I’m referring to a company, PatientsLikeMe, which describes itself thusly:
“Targeted therapy.” It’s the holy grail of cancer research these days. If you listen to its most vocal proponents, it’s the path towards “personalized medicine” that improves survival with much lower toxicity. With the advent of the revolution in genomics that has transformed cancer research over the last decade, including the petabytes of sequence and gene expression data that pour out of universities and research institutes, the promise of one day being able to a patient’s tumor, determining the specific derangements in genome and gene expression that drive its uncontrolled proliferation, and finding drugs to target these abnormalities seems more tantalizingly close than ever. Indeed, it seems so close that even dubious practitioners, such as Stanislaw Burzynski, have jumped on the bandwagon, co-opting the terms used by real oncologists and real cancer researchers to sell “personalized gene-targeted cancer therapy,” which in their hands are really no more than a parody of efforts to synthesize the enormous quantity of genomic data each patient’s tumor possesses and figure out how best to take advantage of it, a “personalized genomic therapy for dummies,” if you will.
That’s not to say that there aren’t roadblocks to realizing this vision. The problems to be overcome are substantial, and I’ve discussed them multiple times before. For example, just a couple of weeks ago I discussed an example of just what it takes to apply these new genomic techniques to an individual patient. The resources required are staggering, and, more problematic, there often aren’t any single “magic bullet” molecular pathways identified that can be targeted with existing drugs. The case I discussed was a fortunate man indeed in that such a pathway was identified, but most tumors are driven by many derangements in growth control, metabolism, migration, and the other hallmarks of malignancy described by Robert Weinberg. Worse, in many cases we don’t even have drugs that can attack many of the abnormalities that drive cancer progression. Then there’s the issue of tumor heterogeneity, which comes about because cancer is as good example of a disease as I can think of in which evolution due to natural selection results in incredible differences in the cancer cells in one part of the tumor compared to other parts of the tumor or in the tumor metastases. A “targeted” therapy that targets the genetic abnormalities in one part of the cancer might well fail to target the genetic abnormalities driving another part of the tumor.
These, and many other reasons, are why we haven’t “cured cancer” yet.
Earlier today, I gave you the blow-by-blow description of a debate that occurred on Thursday between Dr. Steve Novella and Dr. Julian Whitaker. After that debate, I got an opportunity to “discuss” one of Dr. Whitaker’s points, specifically a scientifically illiterate graph that he had constructed. Because Dave Patton was there doing photography of the event for Michael Shermer, I suggested that we do a picture, even though Dr. Whitaker was still on the podium. The picture came out…well, differently than I had expected. Looking at it again, though, I see that this is a perfect picture to have a little fun with, so I’m going to. Let’s have our SBM readers do something we haven’t done before on this blog. It’s a little thing called “Caption This.” In the comments, I’d like to see what sort of caption you think to be appropriate for this photo.
Have fun, and if I like any of them particularly well, I might add them to the picture and post them here and on Facebook.
Posted in: Humor, Vaccines
I’ve just returned from TAM, along with Steve Novella and Harriet Hall. While there, we joined up with Rachael Dunlop to do what has become a yearly feature of TAM, the Science-Based Medicine workshop, as well as a panel discussion on one of our favorite subjects, “integrative” medicine. Between it all, I did the usual TAM thing, meeting up with old friends, taking in some talks, and, of course, spending the evenings imbibing more alcohol than I probably should have so that I could look and feel my best for our morning sessions, particularly given my difficulty adapting to the time change. One thing I did was completely unexpected, something I learned about the night before our workshop when I happened to run into Evan Bernstein. He informed me of something that our fearless leader Steve Novella was going to do the next day right after our workshop. In a nutshell, Evan told me that Steve was going to debate an antivaccinationist. Evan didn’t know any details other than that Michael Shermer had arranged it and that Steve had been tapped at the last minute. Evan didn’t even know who the antivaccinationist was going to be or what the event was. Naturally, I was intrigued.
So, the next morning I asked Steve about it. I turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.
My eyes lit up.
I was contemplating writing a post along the same lines as Harriet’s post about evolutionary medicine last week, but then on Sunday morning I saw an article that piqued my interest. Sorry, Harriet, my response, if I get to it, might have to wait until next week, although we could always discuss the usefulness (versus the lack thereof) of evolutionary medicine over a beer or two at The Amazing Meeting in a few days. In the meantime, this week’s topic will revisit a topic near and dear to my heart, a topic that I tend to view (sort of) in a similar way as Harriet views evolutionary medicine, namely personalized medicine or the “individualization” of treatments. It’s a topic I’ve written about at least twice before and that Brennen McKenzie wrote about just last week. In essence, we both pointed out that when it comes to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or “integrative medicine” treatments for various conditions and diseases, what CAM practitioners claim to be able to do with respect to “individualized care” is nonsense based on fantasy. Science-based medicine already provides individualized care, but it’s individualized care based on science and clinical trials, not tooth fairy science.
Serendipitously, this point was driven home over the weekend in an article by Gina Kolata in the New York Times entitled In Treatment for Leukemia, Glimpses of the Future. While the story is basically one long anecdote that shows what can be done when new genomic technologies are applied to cancer, it also shows why we are a very long way from the true “individualization” of cancer care. It also turns out that I’ve discussed the same basic story before, but here I’ll try to discuss it in a bit more detail.
I don’t know how I’ve missed this, given that it’s been in existence now for a month and a half, but I have. Regular readers (and even fairly recent readers, given that I write about this topic relatively frequently) know that I’m not a big fan of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). (Come to think of it, neither is anyone else writing for this blog.) Just search this blog for “NCCAM” if you don’t believe me. I’ve explained the reasons many times, but the CliffsNotes version is that NCCAM is an enormous waste of taxpayer money, dedicated as it is to the study of modalities that are at best highly implausible and at worst break well-established laws of physics (i.e., “energy healing”). I do concede that, since the latest NCCAM director (Dr. Josephine Briggs) took over, there has been a noticeable attempt to bring more scientific rigor to NCCAM, and to some extent Dr. Briggs has succeeded. At the very least she is a legitimate scientist with an impressive pre-NCCAM track record, and I do fear who will succeed her when she moves on or retires given that there is enormous pressure from the CAM community to appoint one of their own as director.
Unfortunately, as rigorous a scientist as Dr. Briggs was in her former life, since coming to NCCAM she has gradually been assimilated into the culture of the place. Indeed, although it is good that NCCAM has backed away from studying woo like homeopathy and distance healing, the co-optation of science-based modalities such as exercise, diet, and natural products pharmacology has continued apace. Worse, the recently released five year strategic plan for NCCAM admitted that the science funded by NCCAM in the past was crap and, in essence, promised to do some real science for a change. That’s why on occasion I’ve jokingly said that we should take off and nuke NCCAM from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure. On the other hand, no doubt someone would think I seriously mean that we should nuke NCCAM. Of course, I’d never advocate that! NCCAM is located right smack dab in the middle of the NIH campus. The collateral damage would be unacceptable.
I keed. I keed. I’m not kidding, though, when I echo the questioning of why NCCAM still exists.
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.
Richard P. Feynman
What would we do without it? It’s become so necessary, so pervasive, so utterly all-enveloping that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Given how much it pervades everything these days, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that the Internet was primarily the domain of universities and large research groups. Indeed, the Internet hasn’t really been widely and easily available to the average citizen for very long at all. Go back 20 years, and most people didn’t have it. For example, Netscape Navigator, the popular browser that made the Internet accessible, wasn’t released until 1994. Amazon.com, an online store I can’t imagine living without now, didn’t sell its first book until 1995, and I didn’t discover it until 1996 or 1997. Google, that ubiquitous search engine that everyone uses, wasn’t incorporated until 1998. Now, less than 14 years after Google was incorporated most people have the Internet in their pockets with them in the form of mobile devices that have computing power undreamed-of in the 1990s and can access the Internet at speeds that increasingly blur the line between landline access and mobile computing. It’s been an amazingly fast social and technological revolution, and we don’t yet know where it will take us, but we do know that it’s not going away. If anything, the Internet will continue to become more and more pervasive.
A couple of months ago, a reader sent me an article that really disturbed me. In fact, I had originally been planning to write about it not long after I received it. It is, as you might imagine given my specialty and what disturbs me the most wehen I encounter quackery, a story of a cancer patient. Worse, it’s the story of a cancer patient in my neck of the woods. True, it’s not in the same country, but my cancer center is only around two or three miles from the Detroit River and the Canadian border; so it’s plenty close enough. Too close, in fact. Reading the story, in fact, I realized that it features a form of cancer quackery that, as far as my searches have been able to tell me, we haven’t covered before here at SBM, which alone makes it worth taking on, even though the story is two months old. The “cure” is called Cantron, and it is deeply rooted right here in my metropolitan area. Not only that, its siren song and false promises are attracting patients from across the boarder in Canada. Bernie Mulligan is one such patient:
One of the major themes of this blog has been to combat what I, borrowing a term coined (as far as I can tell) by Dr. R. W. Donnell, like to refer to as “quackademic medicine.” Quackademic medicine is a lovely term designed to summarize everything that is wrong with the increasing embrace of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) or, as it’s increasingly called now, “integrative medicine” (IM) into academic medical centers. CAM/IM now a required part of the curriculum in many medical schools, and increasingly medical schools and academic medical centers seem to be setting up IM centers and divisions and departments. Fueled by government sources, such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and private sources, such as the Bravewell Collaborative (which has been covered extensively recently not just by me but by Kimball Atwood, Steve Novella, and Mark Crislip), academic medical centers are increasingly “normalizing” what was once rightly considered quackery, hence the term “quackademic medicine.” The result over the last 20 years has been dramatic, so much so that even bastions of what were once completely hard-core in their insistence on basing medicine in science can embrace naturopathy, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophic medicine, reiki and other forms of “energy healing,” traditional Chinese medicine, and even homeopathy, all apparently in a quest to keep the customer satisfied.
Of course, in a way, academia is rather late to the party. CAM has been showing up in clinics, shops, and malls for quite a while now. For example, when I recently traveled to Scottsdale to attend the annual meeting of the American Society of Breast Surgeons, I happened to stop in a mall looking for a quick meal at a food court and saw this: