If there’s one medical treatment that proponents of “alternative medicine” love to hate, it’s chemotherapy. Rants against “poisoning” are a regular staple on “alternative health” websites, usually coupled with insinuations or outright accusations that the only reason oncologists administer chemotherapy is because of the “cancer industrial complex” in which big pharma profits massively from selling chemotherapeutic agents and oncologists and hospitals profit massively from administering them. Indeed, I’ve lost track of the number of such rants I’ve deconstructed over the years. Usually, they boil down to two claims: (1) that chemotherapy doesn’t work against cancer (or, as I’ve called it before, the “2% gambit“) and (2) that the only reason it’s given is because doctors are brainwashed in medical school or because of the profit motive or, of course, because of a combination of the two. Of course, the 2% gambit is based on a fallacious cherry picking of data and confusing primary versus adjuvant chemotherapy, and chemotherapy does actually work rather well for many malignancies, but none of this stops the flow of misinformation.
Misinformation and demonization aside, it is also important to realize that the term “chemotherapy,” which was originally coined by German chemist Paul Ehrlich, was originally intended to mean the use of chemicals to treat disease. By this definition, virtually any drug is “chemotherapy,” including antibiotics. Indeed, one could argue that by this expansive definition, even the herbal remedies that some alternative medicine practitioners like to use to treat cancer would be chemotherapy for the simple reason that they contain chemicals and are being used to treat disease. Granted, the expansive definition evolved over the years, and these days the term “chemotherapy” is rarely used to describe anything other than the cytotoxic chemotherapy of cancer that in the popular mind causes so many horrific side effects. But in reality virtually any drug used to treat cancer is chemotherapy, which is why I like to point out to fans of Stanislaw Burzynski that his antineoplastons, if they actually worked against cancer, would be rightly considered chemotherapy, every bit as much as cyclophosphamide, 5-fluorouracil, and other common chemotherapeutics.
“The forces of graft and unrighteousness are peculiar to no country or clime, and they have their champions in the high places and the low. Until the people themselves are better educated concerning the danger and iniquity of quackery, they must be protected from the forces that prey. The popular understanding of these matters is becoming better every day, and, aided by proper laws, the time will come, perhaps, when quackery will be unprofitable.”
The above quote is from a recently published JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) article. I should say that it is republished, because it first appeared on June 8, 1912. The brief article outlines the issues surrounding the regulation of medical practice so as to protect the public from “quackery.” It is interesting to see that the issues faced 100 years ago are virtually identical (in broad brush strokes) to those we face today. Despite the fact that so much has changed in medicine over the last century, in this regard very little has changed.
To put this article into historical context, it was published just two years after the Flexner Report, generally recognized as the turning point in American and Canadian medical education when it truly embraced scientific and evidence-based practices. Mainstream medicine in 1912 was barely making the transition from being based upon tradition and authority to having scientific backing and genuine standards. Life expectancy in the US had just passed 50, up from a low of around 40 thirty years earlier. Phrenology was still practiced by mainstream psychiatrists and neurologists – although it was on the way out (having recently been refuted by scientific studies) and was increasingly being pushed to the fringe. The last purely homeopathic medical school in the US would not close until 1920. Patent medicines were still the norm, and the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act had only recently been enacted to establish some standards of safety in the medicine marketplace (this would essentially transform into the FDA in 1930).
David Kroll’s recent article on thunder god vine is a great example of what can be learned by using science to study plants identified by herbalists as therapeutic. The herbalists’ arsenal can be a rich source of potential knowledge. But Kroll’s article is also a reminder that blindly trusting herbalists’ recommendations for treatment can be risky.
Herbal medicine has always fascinated me. How did early humans determine which plants worked? They had no record-keeping, no scientific methods, only trial and error and word of mouth. How many intrepid investigators poisoned themselves and died in the quest? Imagine yourself in the jungle: which plants would you be willing to try? How would you decide whether to use the leaf or the root? How would you decide whether to chew the raw leaf or brew an infusion? It is truly remarkable that our forbears were able to identify useful natural medicines and pass the knowledge down to us.
It is equally remarkable that modern humans with all the advantages of science are willing to put useless and potentially dangerous plant products into their bodies based on nothing better than prescientific hearsay. (more…)