Posts Tagged Cancer

Ken Burns Presents Cancer

Note: I wrote two posts today to alert readers to two upcoming television events in time for them to plan their viewing. See the second post for an announcement about a film on scientology, along with an article about Scientology’s War on Medicine that I wrote for Skeptic magazine.

Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns

Ken Burns has made a lot of outstanding films. His The Civil War has been listed as second only to Nanook of the North as the most influential documentary of all time. I was delighted to learn that he had applied his exceptional skills to a topic that is very important to us on the Science-Based medicine blog, cancer. His film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

I reviewed Mukherjee’s book in 2010. He is an oncologist and cancer researcher and also a superb writer. I characterized his book as:

a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works and how it developed, how we learned to randomize, do controlled trials, get informed consent, use statistics appropriately, and how science can go wrong.

I continue to think it is the best book ever written on cancer.

The film interviews Mukherjee and many of the researchers and patients whose stories appear in the book. If you haven’t read the book, it will give you an idea what it’s about. If you have read the book, you will enjoy it even more as you meet the people you have read about. It covers the history of cancer as well as the most recent scientific developments and is very optimistic about the future.

The movie is scheduled to premiere March 30 – April 1 at 9 PM EST on PBS, in 3 parts with a total duration of 6 hours. You can watch the trailer online. The producers sent me a press preview 1-hour highlight reel and I was very impressed. I can’t wait to watch the whole thing. I hope you will be able to watch it too.

Posted in: Announcements, Book & movie reviews, Cancer

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On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her "expertise" at the antivaccine "Green Our Vaccines" rally in Washington, DC in 2008

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her “expertise” at the antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC in 2008

The major theme of the Science-Based Medicine blog is that the application of good science to medicine is the best way to maintain and improve the quality of patient care. Consequently, we spend considerable time dissecting medical treatments based on pseudoscience, bad science, and no science, and trying to prevent their contaminating existing medicine with unscientific claims and treatments. Often these claims and treatments are represented as “challenging” the scientific consensus and end up being presented in the media—or, sadly, sometimes even in the scientific literature—as valid alternatives to existing medicine. Think homeopathy. Think antivaccine views. Think various alternative cancer treatments. When such pseudoscientific medicine is criticized, frequently the reaction from its proponents is to attack “consensus science.” Indeed, I’ve argued that one red flag identifying a crank or a quack is a hostility towards the very concept of a scientific consensus.

Indeed, I even cited as an example of this attitude a Tweet by Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). This is an organization of physicians that values “mavericky-ness” above all else, in the process rejecting the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), that HIV causes AIDS, and that abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer, to name a few. Along the way the AAPS embraces some seriously wacky far right wing viewpoints such as that Medicare is unconstitutional and that doctors should not be bound by evidence-based practice guidelines because they are an affront to the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and—or so it seems to me—the “freedom” of a doctor to do pretty much damned well anything he pleases to treat a patient.

Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 3: A “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial

Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 3: A “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial

It’s been a while since I discussed medical marijuana, even though it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to come back to since I first dubbed medical marijuana to be the equivalent of herbalism and discussed how the potential of cannabinoids to treat cancer has been, thus far, unimpressive, with relatively modest antitumor effects. The reason I refer to medical marijuana as the “new herbalism” is because the arguments made in favor of medical marijuana are very much like arguments for herbalism, including arguments that using the natural plant is superior to using specific purified cannabinoids, appeals to how “natural” marijuana is, and claims of incredible effectiveness against all manner of diseases, including deadly diseases like cancer, based on anecdotes and testimonials. Now, as I pointed out before, not only am I not opposed to the legalization and regulation of marijuana for recreational use, even though I’ve never tried it myself, but I support it. What I do not support are claims for medical effects that are not backed up with good scientific evidence, and for medical marijuana most claims fall into that category. That’s why I tend to view medical marijuana as a backdoor way to get marijuana legalized. Personally I’d rather advocates of marijuana legalization drop the charade, argue for legalization, and stop with the medical nonsense.

The last time around, I discussed the evidence supporting claims that “cannabis cures cancer” and found them to be wanting based on science. I didn’t however, discuss the “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial machine that drives the claim that marijuana is useful for treating cancer; at least, I only touched on it by discussing briefly Rick Simpson, who claims that his hash oil cures approximately 70% of patients with terminal cancer and a published anecdote in which it was claimed that hemp oil was effective in treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (It wasn’t. At least, the evidence presented was not convincing.) Since then, I’ve wanted to revisit the topic of “cannabis cures cancer” testimonials, and, for whatever reason, now seems like a good time to do it.

Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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The Gerson protocol, cancer, and the death of Jess Ainscough, a.k.a. “The Wellness Warrior”

The Wellness Warrior website now redirects to this photo.

The Wellness Warrior website now redirects to this photo.

Less than four days ago, a young Australian woman died of a very rare type of cancer. Most of my American and probably many of my European readers have never heard of her, but in Australia she had become quite famous over the last seven years as a major proponent of “natural health.” Her name was Jess Ainscough, but, like a certain American woman who has become famous for promoting dubious science, she was better known by her “brand” name. That brand name was The Wellness Warrior.

I first encountered Ms. Ainscough about a year and a half ago and have been intermittently following her career ever since. I’ve even blogged about her three or four times during that period over at my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, for whatever reason, even though it was my intent to write about her here on Science-Based Medicine, I never got around to it. Her death prodded me to write now, because her tale is a cautionary one important enough that I believe there should be something written here about it. Given that, those of you who follow my cubical other self will find some of this post repetitive. However, think of it as the first opportunity I’ve had to tell the story from beginning to end, along with a major deconstruction of the Gerson protocol. (Yes, unfortunately the Gerson protocol figures heavily in this story.) It’s a story that has led to the deaths of at least two people, and whose harm to others is impossible to quantify, given that the reach of The Wellness Warrior was long, at least in Australia.

Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, History, Science and the Media

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The Hippocrates Health Institute: Cancer quackery finally under the spotlight, but will it matter?

This is a screenshot from the website of the Hippocrates Health Institute, showing its grounds.

This is a screenshot from the website of the Hippocrates Health Institute, showing how high end its grounds and facilities are.

I first came across Brian Clement, the proprietor of the Hippocrates Health Institute in West Palm Beach, Florida, a little more than a year ago based on the story of Stephanie O’Halloran. Ms. O’Halloran was—word choice unfortunately intentional—a 23-year-old mother of an 18 month old child from Ireland who was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in 2013, with metastases to her lymph nodes, liver, lung, and leg. Unfortunately for her, she found Brian Clement at the Hippocrates Health Institute, who gave her false hope with his claims that a raw vegan diet and wheatgrass can treat just about everything. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, Ms. O’Halloran died in June 2014, less than nine months after having been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer.

I didn’t write about Stephanie O’Halloran at the time (at least not here), but I did write about Brian Clement and the Hippocrates Health Institute (HHI) twice over the last several months in the context of the cases of two 11-year-old Aboriginal girls in Canada with cancer, specifically lymphoblastic leukemia. One was —word choice again unfortunately intentional—named Makayla Sault and the other is referred to as “JJ” in news reports to protect her privacy in her parents’ legal proceedings to assert their right to use traditional medicine to treat their daughter’s cancer rather than curative chemotherapy, which was estimated to have a 75% chance of curing Makayla Sault and an 85% to 90% chance of curing JJ. Unfortunately, both girls and their parents fell under the spell of Brian Clement and his cancer quackery. The result was one unnecessarily dead girl (Makayla Sault, who died last month) and one likely to be dead by the end of this year or not much longer (JJ). Such is the price of cancer quackery. In this case, even more puzzlingly, these girls’ parents seemed quite content to conflate the quackery of Brian Clement, a white man practicing in Florida, with “traditional Aboriginal medicine,” the sort of practices they were claiming to have a right to.

Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Legal

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Screening for disease in people without symptoms: The reality

One of the most contentious questions that come up in science-based medicine that we discuss on this blog is the issue of screening asymptomatic individuals for disease. The most common conditions screened for that we, at least, have discussed on this blog are cancers (e.g., mammography for breast cancer, prostate-specific antigen screening for prostate cancer, ultrasound screening for thyroid cancer), but screening goes beyond just cancer. In cancer, screening is a particularly-contentious issue. For example, by simply questioning whether mammography saves as many lives lost to breast cancer as advocates claim, one can find oneself coming under fire from some very powerful advocates of screening who view any questioning of mammography as an attempt to deny “life-saving” screening to women. That’s why I was very interested when I saw a blog post on The Gupta Guide that pointed me to a new systematic review by John Ioannidis and colleagues examining the value of screening as a general phenomenon, entitled “Does screening for disease save lives in asymptomatic adults? Systematic review of meta-analyses and randomized trials.”

Before I get into the study, let’s first review some of the key concepts behind screening asymptomatic individuals for disease. (If you’re familiar with these concepts, you can skip to the next section.) The act of screening for disease is based on a concept that makes intuitive sense to most people, including physicians, but might not be correct for many diseases. That concept is that early intervention is more likely to successfully prevent complications and death than later intervention. This concept is particularly strong in cancer, for obvious reasons. Compare, for example, a stage I breast cancer (less than 2 cm in diameter, no involvement of the lymph nodes under the arm, known as axillary lymph nodes) with a stage III cancer (e.g., a tumor measuring greater than 5 cm and/or having lots of axillary lymph nodes involved). Five year survival is much higher for treated stage I than for treated stage III, and, depending on the molecular characteristics, the stage I cancer might not even require chemotherapy and can be treated with breast conserving surgery (“lumpectomy” or partial mastectomy) far more frequently than the stage III cancer. So it seems intuitively true that it would be better to catch a breast cancer when it’s stage I rather than when it’s stage III.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health

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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.

Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Epidemiology, Science and the Media

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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.

Posted in: Cancer, Faith Healing & Spirituality, Politics and Regulation, Religion

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


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.

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Breast cancer myths: No, antiperspirants do not cause breast cancer


Four weeks ago, I wrote a post in which I explained why wearing a bra does not cause breast cancer. After I had finished the post, it occurred to me that I should have saved that post for now, given that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The reason is that, like clockwork, pretty much every year around this time articles touting various myths about breast cancer will go viral, circulating on social media like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr like so many giant spider-microbes on the moon on Saturday. Sometimes, they’re new articles. Sometimes they’re old articles that, like the killer at the end of a slasher film, seem to have died but always come back for another attack, if not immediately, then when the next movie comes out.

So I thought that this October I should take at least a couple of them on, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll stick to the topic of breast cancer myths for the whole month. After all, our “atavistic oncology” crank (you remember him, don’t you?) is agitating in the comments and e-mailing his latest “challenge” to my dean, other universities, and me. It was almost enough for me to put this post on hold for a week and respond to our insistent little friend’s latest “evidence,” but for now I’ll just tell Dr. Frank Arguello, “Be very careful what you ask for. You might just get it.” Maybe next week. Or maybe on my not-so-super-secret other blog. Or maybe never. Because Dr. Arguello has officially begun to bore me.

In the meantime, I’m going to stick with the original plan, at least for now.

So, first up this week is a myth that I can’t believe that I haven’t covered in depth sometime during the nearly seven years of this blog’s existence, other than in passing a couple of times, even though it’s a topic that deserves its own post. I’m referring to the claim that antiperspirants cause breast cancer. I bet you’ve seen articles like this oldie but not so goodie from über-quack Joe Mercola entitled “Are Aluminum-Containing Antiperspirants Contributing To Breast Cancer In Women?” or this older and even moldier article from seven years ago entitled “Why women should avoid using anti-perspirants that could cause breast cancer” or this one from last year entitled “Attention Deodorant Users: New Studies Link Aluminum To Breast Cancer“. Surprisingly, I haven’t found that many from this year yet. (Maybe the Ebola scare is distracting the usual suspects and diverting their efforts.) The same ones, however, keep reappearing every year, and they’re all based on the same sorts of claims and the same studies. So let’s dig in, shall we? (more…)

Posted in: Cancer, Epidemiology, Public Health, Science and the Media

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