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Is cancer due mostly to “bad luck”?

One of the more difficult conversations to have with a patient as a cancer doctor occurs when a patient, recently informed of her diagnosis of, for example, breast cancer, asks me, “Why did I get this? What caused it?” What almost inevitably follows is an uncomfortable conversation in which explanations of the multiple known causes of breast cancer do not satisfy the patient. The reason, of course, is because when a patient asks, “What caused it?” she doesn’t mean what causes breast cancer in general or in statistical terms. Rather, she means, what caused my breast cancer? It’s a question that can only occasionally be answered. For instance, if it’s lung cancer and the patient is a smoker, then it was almost certainly smoking that caused the cancer, because lung cancer is a relatively rare cancer in the absence of smoking. In the case of breast cancer, contrary to the prevailing belief that leads women with breast cancer to be puzzled about how they could get it when there’s “no cancer” in their families, only around 5-10% of cases have a familial or genetic component. That means that around 90% of breast cancers are what we call “sporadic,” which means that we can’t identify a specific cause. Or, as I like to say, “We just don’t know.” Worse, in the case of breast cancer, the environmental factors we know about appear to contribute modestly at best to the risk of cancer. (More on this later.)

Understandably, patients hate hearing “We just don’t know,” some vague handwaving about genes, and that there is nothing that we know of that they did that caused their cancer. People—including oncologists—really don’t like the concept of “sporadic” cancer, mainly because humans crave explanation. The default assumption is that everything must happen for a reason and there must be a cause for every disease or cancer. Perhaps the most ridiculously emphatic statement of this that I’ve encountered thus far comes from (who else?) über-quack Mike Adams when he heaped contempt on the idea of sporadic disease as “spontaneous disease.” He did this in the context of a story describing how, after Dr. Mehmet Oz had followed recommended care and undergone screening colonoscopy to look for polyps, he was shocked that he actually had some. This led Adams, in his usual inimitable fashion, to construct a straw man so massive that it could be seen from space when he set it on fire, declaring that “colon polyps, in other words, appear without any cause!” and that “mainstream medicine…believes in the theory of ‘spontaneous disease’ that ‘strikes’ people at random.”

Not exactly.

On the other hand, there is a lot of randomness in disease, not just cancer, as hard as it is for Mike Adams, or anyone to accept. Just because there is a varying amount of randomness in who gets a disease does not mean that mainstream medicine claims there is no cause to these diseases. Rather, for diseases like cancer, it’s a stochastic process, meaning that chance can play a role—sometimes a big role—in determining who gets sick. Indeed, just last week there was more evidence supporting this idea published in Science. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream press coverage presented the message of the paper a bit too simplistically. Even more unfortunately, it was the authors who encouraged this, as did the Johns Hopkins University press release about the study, which was entitled “Bad Luck of Random Mutations Plays Predominant Role in Cancer, Study Shows“. Yes, I groaned when I read this title.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Epidemiology, Science and the Media

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Risks of CAM Treatments for Cancer

 From the US Food and Drug Association article "6 Tip-offs to Rip-offs: Don’t Fall for Health Fraud Scams

From the US Food and Drug Association article “6 Tip-offs to Rip-offs: Don’t Fall for Health Fraud Scams

“What’s the harm?” is an insidious idea when used as a justification for unscientific medical treatments. The argument is typically put forward with the assumption that direct physical harm is the only type of harm that can result from such treatments, so as long as they aren’t toxic there is no downside to trying them. Harm comes in many forms, however: delayed effective treatment, wasted time and energy, financial harm, the psychological harm of false hope, and the downstream effects of instilling unscientific beliefs regarding health care.

One other form of harm is physical but is not due to direct physical damage or toxicity. Rather, it is caused by CAM treatments interacting with proven therapies. A recent survey, presented at the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia annual scientific meeting, explored the potential for such interactions among oncology patients. Lead researcher Sally Brooks found that, in addition to vitamins and minerals, cancer patients were most interested in fish oil, turmeric, coenzyme Q10, milk thistle, green tea, ginger, lactobacillus, licorice, Astragalus and reishi mushrooms.

As I have written many times before, herbs are drugs, but many patients do not treat them as such because they are regulated and marketed as “supplements,” more like food than drugs. There are concerns that many vitamin and herbal products may interact with chemotherapy or radiation therapy in order to reduce effectiveness or even increase side effects. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Science and Medicine

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The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine

Steve still happens to be galavanting about Australia, spreading science, skepticism, and, of course, science-based medicine Down Under. Given that, he has been unable to produce new content for today. Never one to let such an opportunity pass, I decided to take advantage in order to do a little shameless self promotion.

A week and a half ago, I gave a talk at Skepticon 7 in Springfield, MO, entitled “The Central Dogma of Alternative Medicine”. It has now been posted on YouTube:

Because some of the sound didn’t come through as well as one might hope, I’m also including the full video of Kim Tinkham that I used early in the talk to illustrate a point. I only used about two minutes’ worth of it, but here is the whole thing, in case you’re interested:

Let me know what you think! And don’t forget to donate to Skepticon, to keep the skeptical goodness coming next year and beyond.

Posted in: Cancer, Religion, Science and Medicine

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Selling “integrative oncology” as a monograph in JNCI

pancreatic-cancer-diagnostics-l

Sometimes, it’s hard not to get the feeling that my fellow bloggers at Science-Based Medicine and I are trying to hold back the tide in terms the infiltration of pseudoscience and quackery into conventional medicine, a term I like to refer to as quackademic medicine. In most cases, this infiltration occurs under the rubric of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), which these days is increasingly referred to as “integrative medicine,” the better to banish any impression of inferior status implied by the name “CAM” and replace it with the implication of a happy, harmonious “integration” of the “best of both worlds.” (As I like to point out, analogies to another “best of both worlds” are hard to resist.) Of course, as my good buddy Mark Crislip has put it, the passionate protestations of CAM advocates otherwise notwithstanding, integrating cow pie with apple pie doesn’t make the cow pie better. Rather, it makes the apple pie worse.

In any case, over the last three months, Steve Novella and I published a solid commentary in Trends in Molecular Medicine decrying the testing in randomized clinical trials of, in essence, magic, while I managed to score a commentary in Nature Reviews Cancer criticizing “integrative oncology.” Pretty good, right? What do I see this month in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (or JNCI, as we like to call it)? An entire monograph devoted to a the topic, “The Role of Integrative Oncology for Cancer Survivorship”, touting integrative oncology, of course. And where did I find out about this monograph? I found out about it from Josephine Briggs, the director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) herself, on the NCCAM blog in a post entitled “The Evidence Base for Integrative Approaches to Cancer Care“, in which she touts her perspective piece in the JNCI issue entitled “Building the Evidence Base for Integrative Approaches to Care of Cancer Survivors.” In an introductory article, Jun J. Mao and Lorenzo Cohen of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, Abramson Cancer Center, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, respectively, line up this monograph thusly:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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Recent Developments and Recurring Dilemmas in Cancer Screening: Colon, Lung, Thyroid

Cancer screening - lead time bias small

Screen detection and tumor growth rates. Cancers have different growth rates, which determine their potential to be detected by screening. Tumor A remains microscopic and undetectable by current technology (although more sensitive tests in the future might render it detectable). Tumor B eventually becomes detectable by screening (*), but its growth rate is so slow that it will not cause symptoms during the life of the individual; its detection will result in overdiagnosis. Tumor C is capable of metastasizing, but it grows slowly enough that it can be detected by screening (*); for some, this early detection will result in survival. Tumor D grows very quickly and therefore is usually not detected by screening. This will present as an interval cancer (i.e. detected clinically in the interval between screening examinations) and has a particularly poor prognosis. Note that of the four tumor types, only Tumor C has the potential to benefit from screening. Red dashed lines represent the natural history of a tumor in the absence of detection by screening. (Figure 1 from Gates, 2014).

A new stool DNA test was recently approved by the FDA for colon cancer screening. My first reaction was “Yay! I hope it’s good enough to replace all those unpleasant, expensive screening colonoscopies.” But of course, things are never that simple. I wanted to explain the new test for our readers; but before I could start writing, some other issues in cancer screening barged in and demanded to be included. They exemplify the dilemmas we face with every screening test. We have covered these issues before, but mainly in reference to mammography and prostate (PSA) screening. My article morphed into a CLT sandwich: colon, lung, and thyroid cancer screening.

The current issue of American Family Physician has a great article on cancer screening. It uses lucid graphics to illustrate lead time bias, length time bias, and overdiagnosis bias, as well the effect of varying tumor growth rates on screening success rates, all concepts that have been covered by Dr. Gorski here. Briefly, screening may do more harm than good if:

  1. It detects cancerous cells that never would have developed into invasive cancers or harmed the patient in any way;
  2. Early diagnosis and treatment decrease quality of life without reducing death rates; or
  3. The test falsely indicates cancer in patients who don’t have it or fails to indicate cancer in some who do. (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures

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Ontario fails to protect the life of a First Nations girl with cancer

First Nations

A few weeks ago, Steve Novella invited me on his podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, to discuss a cancer case that has been in the news for several months now. The case was about an 11-year-old girl with leukemia who is a member of Canada’s largest aboriginal community. Steve wrote about this case nearly a month ago. Basically, the girl’s parents are fighting for the right to use “natural healing” on their daughter after they had stopped her chemotherapy in August because of side effects. It is a profoundly disturbing case, just as all the other cases I’ve discussed in which children’s lives are sacrificed at the altar of belief in alternative medicine, but this one has a twist that I don’t recall having dealt with before: The girl’s status as part of the First Nations. Sadly, on Friday, Ontario Court Justice Gethin Edward has ruled that the parents can let their daughter die.

The First Nations consist of various Aboriginal peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis. There are currently more than 630 recognized First Nations governments or bands in Canada, half of which are located in Ontario and British Columbia. This girl lives in Ontario, which is basically just next door to Detroit, just across the Detroit River. Unlike previous cases of minors who refuse chemotherapy or whose parents refuse chemotherapy for them that I’ve discussed, such as Sarah Hershberger, an Amish girl whose parents were taken to court by authorities in Medina County, Ohio at the behest of Akron General Hospital, where she had been treated because they stopped her chemotherapy for lymphoblastic lymphoma in favor of “natural healing,” or Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old boy from Minnesota with Hodgkin’s lymphoma whose parents, in particular his mother, refused chemotherapy after starting his chemotherapy and suffering side effects, there’s very little information about this girl because of Canadian privacy laws. I do not know her name. I do not know anything about her case except that she has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, that she started treatment but her parents withdrew her because of side effects.
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Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Politics and Regulation, Religion

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Eminent Harvard psychologist, mother of positive psychology, New Age quack?

Eminent Harvard psychologist, mother of positive psychology, New Age quack?

Be less curious about people and more curious about ideas.
– Marie Curie’s advice to journalists

langer cbs this

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer was on CBS This Morning News explaining plans for a psychosocial intervention study with women with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. The project would attempt to shrink women’s tumors by shifting their mental perspective back to before they were diagnosed.
Seeing her on TV unsettled me because I had just supplied a journalist with quotes for his article in the New York Times about Langer. I hadn’t been following her recently. Instead I focused on her now-famous study from the 70s. Langer had claimed that giving nursing home residents a plant for which they were responsible cut their mortality by half (the nursing home residents, not the plant), compared to residents whose plants were attended by staff. The paper continues to get uncritical coverage in the media and in introductory psychology texts.

I looked up the Timesarticle after seeing CBS This Morning News, and it accurately quoted me:
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Medical Ethics

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Blaming breast cancer on autism

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

Gayle DeLong has been diagnosed with what she refers to as “autism-induced breast cancer”. She’s even given it an abbreviation, AIBC. Unfortunately, as you might be able to tell by the name she’s given her breast cancer, she is also showing signs of falling into the same errors in thinking with respect to her breast cancer as she clearly has with respect to autism. As a breast cancer surgeon, regardless of my personal opinion of DeLong’s anti-vaccine beliefs, I can only hope that she comes to her senses and undergoes science-based treatment, but I fear she will not, as you will see. Her brief post announcing her diagnosis and blaming it on autism, however, does provide what I like to call a “teachable moment” about cancer.

We’ve met DeLong before on this blog. For instance, she published an execrably bad study that—of course!—tried to link vaccine to autism and failed miserably, despite doing some amazing contortions of analysis, combining diagnoses willy-nilly, all in the service of the discredited vaccine-autism hypothesis. As I said at the time, it just goes to show that someone who is an associate professor of economics and finance shouldn’t be doing epidemiological research. As I also described at the time, if the sorts of analytical techniques she used in her study are acceptable in the world of economics and finance, no wonder our economy has been so screwed up for so long. Another time, DeLong wrote a broadside against the regulatory machinery that oversees vaccine development and safety that was full of the usual antivaccine misinformation, tropes, and pseudoscience and hugely exaggerated perceived “conflicts of interest” among the various parties.
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Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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Using the fear of Ebola to promote the placebo legislation that is “right to try”

rick-snyder

Perhaps the most pervasive medical conspiracy theory of all involves stories that there exist out there all sorts of fantastic cures for cancer and other deadly diseases but you can’t have them because (1) “they” don’t want you to know about them (as I like to call it, the Kevin Trudeau approach) and/or (2) the evil jackbooted thugs of the FDA are so close-minded and blinded by science that they crush any attempt to market such drugs and, under the most charitable assessment under this myth, dramatically slow down the approval of such cures. The first version usually involves “natural” cures or various other alternative medicine cures that are being “suppressed” by the FDA, FTC, state medical boards, and various other entities, usually at the behest of their pharma overlords. The second version is less extreme but no less fantasy-based. It tends to be tightly associated with libertarian and small government fantasists and a loose movement in medicine with similar beliefs known as the “health freedom” movement, whose members posit that, if only the heavy hand of government were removed and the jack-booted thugs of the FDA reined in, free market innovation would flourish, and the cures so long suppressed by an overweening and oppressive regulatory apparatus would burst the floodgates. Under this views, these cures, long held back by the dam of the FDA, would flow immediately to the people, and there would be much rejoicing. (Funny how it didn’t work out that way before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.) Of course, I can’t help but note that in general, in this latter idea, these fantastical benefits seem to be reserved only for those who have the cash, because, well, the free market fixes everything. At least, that seems to be the belief system at the heart of many of these conspiracy theories.

The idea that the FDA is keeping cures from desperate terminally ill people, either intentionally or unintentionally, through its insistence on a rigorous, science-based approval process in which drugs are taken through preclinical work, phase 1, phase 2, and phase 3 testing before approval is one of the major driving beliefs commonly used to justify so-called “right-to-try” laws. These bills have been infiltrating state houses like so much kudzu, and the Ebola outbreak has only added fuel to the fire based on the accelerated use of ZMapp, a humanized monoclonal antibody against the Ebola virus, in some patients even though it hadn’t been tested in humans yet (more on that later). Already four of these laws have been passed (in Colorado, Missouri, Louisiana, and now Michigan) with a referendum in Arizona almost certain to pass next week to bring the total to five states with such laws. Basically, these laws, as I’ve described, claim to allow access to experimental drugs to terminally ill patients with a couple of major conditions: First, that the drug has passed phase I clinical trials and second that the patient has exhausted all approved therapies. As I’ve explained before more than once, first when the law hit the news big time in Arizona and then when a right-to-try bill was introduced into the legislature here in Michigan, they do nothing of the sort and are being promoted based on a huge amount of misinformation detailed in the links earlier. First, having passed phase 1 does not mean a drug is safe, but right-to-try advocates, particularly the main group spearheading these laws, the Goldwater Institute, make that claim incessantly. Second, they vastly overstate the likelihood that a given experimental drug will help a given patient. The list goes on.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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“Quackery: A $10 Billion Scandal”

Rubber ducky
Who would you guess authored a 250-page report which begins with this Preface?

This report marks the culmination of an intensive four-year review of quackery and its impact on the elderly. . . As this report details, quackery has traveled far from the day of the pitchman and covered wagon to emerge as big business. Those who orchestrate and profit from the sale and promotion of these useless and often harmful “health” products are no longer quaint and comical figures. They are well organized, sophisticated and persistent. [We estimate] the cost of quackery – the promotion and sale of useless remedies promising relief from chronic and critical health conditions – exceeds $10 billion a year. The costs of quackery in human terms, measured in disillusion, pain, relief forsaken or postponed because of reliance on unproven methods, is more difficult to measure, but nonetheless real. All too frequently, the purchaser has paid with his life. While the impact of quackery on our lives has been increasing and growing in sophistication, public and private efforts designed to address and control this problem have diminished, been redirected or disbanded.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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