On quack cancer cures, and "alternative medicine" as religion

I loved Science Blogs contributor Orac before I was diagnosed with cancer. I love him a whole lot more now. I'll get to why in a moment, but I want to share something personal first (cracks knuckles).

Well-meaning friends have suggested I try coffee enemas and Burzynskian "antineoplastons" and oxygen therapy to cure my breast cancer; others have told me the reason some of my cells went mutinous is because I offended the Great Invisible Beardy Man in the Sky.

Dude, I've heard it all.

I am active on Twitter in talking about cancer, sharing the experience of my treatment (which fucking sucks), and connecting with fellow persons with cancer.

One of those fellow travelers yesterday tweeted this link, which praises the work of "ND" Judy Seeger. In alternative healing parlance, ND stands for naturopathic doctor. I like Orac's definition better: "not a doctor."

Let me be blunt: I think people who sell fake cancer cures are murderers.

I spoke about the content of that blog post with my radiation oncologist yesterday, after I lay down under the linear accelerator for another daily (yep, daily) blast of rays to kill any remaining lurking cells that might want to off me a few years down the road.

I hate radiation treatment, by the way. HATE IT. But I hate cancer more.

The tl;dr of the conversation I had in the exam room with my rad-onc: medicine isn't perfect, and people who work in the health care system, like my doc, know many aspects of it are broken. Many of them will tell you they are frustrated at how brutal the effects of radiation, chemo, and surgery are on those of us who must endure. But this is the best we have, for now.

Green smoothies are great, but they alone cannot cure cancer. Oncology isn't guaranteed to cure us, but quackery is guaranteed to kill us. What doctors like my rad-onc practice is constantly under scrutiny, and has endured the test of peer-reviewed science and empirical logic. It is the best we have. Rattlesnake powder, laetrile, and squirting espresso up your ass (real things that real people have told me I should do instead of sciencey-medicine) is not.

There are no dark Big Pharma cabals hiding a secret cure for cancer (aka "THE TRUTH," in all caps, as natural cure proponents are wont to type in blog comments). The FDA isn't "hiding" the cure for cancer, either. Believe me, the medical industry would find a way to popularize and profit from that cure, if it did exist. And I'd be first in line, if it worked.

Anyway, about Orac. He tears down naturopathic cancer cures in this post. And in this one, today, he explores the idea of "alternative medicine" as a faith-based religion.

"What we are doing (or trying to do)," writes Orac, is to rely on science rather than faith."

The longer I study alternative medicine and alternative medical systems, the more it becomes clear to me that they show far more similarity to religion than they do to science. It’s true that alt-med apologists dress up their beliefs in language that sounds scientific, but when you scratch the patina of scientific language off, it doesn’t take long to find the religious imagery, often facilitated by the more conventional religious beliefs (i.e, Christianity) of the believer. We see the same thing with respect to evolution denial. So why not with denial of scientific medicine? A nonscientific world view that is based on faith in things that can’t be seen is often not confined to church.

If you haven't spent a ton of time thinking about cancer like I have—and I didn't think about it much before I was diagnosed—you might not know that some idiots actually believe that people like me get cancer because they think bad thoughts. Or conversely, because they don't think enough good thoughts. I'm not kidding. Read the Orac posts. And pass them on to anyone who has cancer, and is frightened and desperate and thinking about ditching science for faith.

I believe cancer patients have every right to choose whatever course of treatment we want, including no treatment at all. But lies and false hope have no place in our lives, least of all when our lives are threatened by a disease that wants to kill us.

If I had fake cancer, I'd totally use fake cancer cures. But I have real cancer.


  1. Thank you for calling out these quacks. People who are afraid of not being in control tend to blame the person with cancer in whatever way they can. Makes ’em feel safer about life. Oh the stories we can all tell about alkaline diets, raw food, any sort of enemas, and more… and the “I was cured of stage 4 melanoma” bullshit that they all toss around. Xeni, you’re doing great work in spreading awareness and honesty.

  2. hey, xeni, i have had so may friends go down to cancer in the last 10 years…but hell, I’m 65 and i would like to say that I have had as many friends conquer cancer just with your attitude.
    so much of survival is attitude and you, my friend have attitude….
    you find what works for you and you do it…you are going to make it, why? because I said so!

    1. actually, it has nothing to do with attitude and everything to do with science, treatment, and the possibility of eradicating all the cancer cells in ones body.

      1.  You would be surprised how much of your body is directly influenced by – to be flippant – “positive thinking”.

          1. I understand where you’re coming from on this and I agree. BUT, I would also agree that a positive outlook in conjunction with modern science would likely be the best possible combination for beating cancer, or any other life threatening disease.

            I think you are confusing the above with someone who is simply “hoping” for their cancer to get better.

          2. I think you should re-read the article. Cancer isn’t cured by positive thinking.

            Some rather vital bodily functions are directly affected by your emotions.  cf. stress and insulin production.  Being calm won’t cure cancer, but being an emotional wreck will certainly aid and abet cancer’s bid to take you over.

          3.  Unfortunately, the “positive thinking” cure is indeed more like wishful thinking, *but* trying hard to keep from falling into a deep dark despair that prevents you from taking care of yourself and seeking all the help you need — well, *that* probably does boost your chances.

        1. Positive thinking basically has no statistical basis in helping to cure cancer.

          The positive thinking approach has also proven detrimental to some people.  Before they are given a chance to deal with their grief and upset over having a potentially fatal medical condition they are told on all sides to “think positive!”  When they find it difficult to think positive at these early stages when they are still grieving they feel even more alienated and somehow responsible for any lack of progress in treatment by way of their lack of positive thinking.

          1. My mother had the most positive attitude imaginable during her bout with breast cancer. In her case it basically crossed over into complete denial of anything remotely negative, such that even up to the day she died she would insist she was getting better every day, although it was obvious the opposite was the case.

            She eschewed all conventional treatment; she had faith in a series of “woo” treatments because she believed it had cured her of cervical cancer years earlier. She never availed herself of surgery, chemo, or any other conventional treatments, other than some radiation to help with pain management of her bone metastases in her last months. 

            She had a right to choose her own course but I wish she had chosen facing the reality of the disease rather than faith in alluring nonsense; she might have lived longer.

            And fuck the assholes who took her money in clinics in Mexico and Germany, promising cures. And fuck them and other woo adherents for blaming her lack of remission on her somehow. Her only fault was in believing them.

        2. If positive thinking is such a plus for survival, why are there so many negative, depressing people around? 

          They seem to be in greater abundance than the positive people.

        3. Yep, it is. But my husband was about the most sunny, determined and positive cancer patients you could hope to find, and he died. Positive thoughts help, but they are not a cure. The issue is blaming the victim for not being as positive as they could be, and therefore the cancer or the fatality is All Their Own Fault. Which is horrible.

        4. I don’t think anyone would be surprised that positive thinking has a profound effect on your life, including physical manifestations. The problem is that the idea alone doesn’t sell books or homeopathic cures. And even miserable, angry people can be healed by science-based medicine, as much as Rhonda Byrne would have her readers believe otherwise.

      2.  If a cancer victim doesn’t have the right attitude the victim won’t seek and follow through with the scientific treatments which are often emotionally and physically distressing.

      3.  Attitude has a lot to do with what science and treatment you’re willing to put up with and with whether you choose the aggressive treatments, woo-woo quackery, or just pain management.  If your attitude is “La-di-dah, everything’s going to turn out just fine if I do my Positive Affirmations!”, that’s going to have a big impact on how long you live.  If your naturopath tells you that Medical Marijuana will cure everything, well, it won’t, but at least it’ll give you some tools for affecting your attitude, and the increased appetite is often helpful even if you’re not using chemo.  (If you’re on chemo and/or radiation, it can be a serious lifesaver.)

        My father had pancreatic cancer, aggressive chemo wasn’t going to cure it, but mild chemo was able to give him a couple of mediocre-health years so he and mom could do a bit more travel and spend some more time with each other and with the grandchildren, and left him less unhappy about things before he reached the point that they stopped the chemo and just did pain meds for a few months.

        Xeni, I’m glad that medicine has a reasonable chance of curing you, and that you were able to detect it early.  Fuck cancer.

  3. Thanks for the great article.  My aunt had breast cancer in the 50s and survived nearly 50 years.  My mother, her sister, had it in the 90s and survived also.  While there is a lot not to like about current cancer therapies, they are lots better than they were 50 years ago, and mostly they do work.  Early diagnosis and intervention help greatly. 

    I agree with your characterization of quackery as murder, and it should be punished as such.  Thanks for sharing your struggles and progress.  Best wishes for a full and speedy recovery. 

  4. It certainly isn’t exclusive to breast cancer (and alt-med generally shows up for anything where conventional medicine hasn’t been refined to technology-indistinguishable-from-magic levels); but something about breast cancer seems to attract an extra-special dose of enthusiasm from the “positive thinking” enthusiasts of the world.

    Unfortunately, if one is given the premise that “positive thinking” is therapeutic, the leap to concluding that there must be something morally defective about anybody whose prognosis isn’t so rosy happens remarkably easily…

  5. Thanks for going after these harmful people from a position of authority – I’m sure it helps those who are less “sure” about science and desperate for hope. Always amazes me how seemingly intelligent people will just accept really loopy stuff because it “sounds right to them”. The granola community seems the most vulnerable, but most of the tin-foil stuff (allergies to wifi, microwaves destroy food “value”) are annoying, but harmless.  When you have an active, definable disease that needs treatment – it can be a difference between a chance and no chance – we shouldn’t be silent on this.
    Following your journey, sending love and getting much more empathy for friends who’ve been down that path. Thank you for your humor and courage.

  6. Orac writes: “… alt-med apologists dress up their beliefs in language that sounds scientific, but when you scratch the patina of scientific language off, it doesn’t take long to find the religious imagery …”

    So, much like ‘creation science’, in other words?

  7. When my son was diagnosed with leukemia, I remember one of the crazies at the local conspiracy-theory pirate radio station phoning my home and talking with my mother-in-law, who was watching the sick kid’s brother. She dutifully wrote down a message about how the cancer was caused by vaccinations and there was a specific homeopathic remedy that would cure it.

    I was amazed that he knew so much about diagnosing cancer over the phone. At the time, I was reading a book about all the clinical trials that actually produced a cure for my son’s cancer, which by the way worked very well. Sure, they used such mundane ingredients as mustard seed and periwinkle flowers, but they carefully tested the drugs on dying kids until the kids started not dying so much.

    I felt, and still feel, a deep sense of gratitude to all those families with dying kids who were willing to subject their children to grueling treatments under carefully controlled conditions in the hope of one day finding a cure. It was all worth it.

    (Boring background: I did tech work for the conspiracy-theory station, since their station was more interesting than the local legal stations. I had built the local alt-alt-music pirate station.)

  8. “so much of survival is attitude . . .”

    No, actually I think that Xeni is saying that so much of survival is medical science. . . .

    1. The attitude part is along the lines “I’m going to put the effort in to find out what the best treatment I can get actually is, follow it properly and keep making sure everyone involved is doing all I need them to do”. Happy thoughts might help you be happy during the process; they might even make you seem more likeable to the medical staff you are depending upon, but they won’t cure you.

    2. To be fair, the oncology nurses will tell you that your attitude about treatment is absolutely an important factor. Showing up for treatment is half the battle, and believe me, it is a battle to show up sometimes. If attitude means doing your part as a patient, then yes, absolutely, attitude also matters. Medicine doesn’t just “happen” to you. You participate.

      1. If we really want to define it… attitude makes it more likely/possible that your treatment will work. but still has nothing to do with being cured. 

        the best analogy I can think of quickly is the lottery. you can be optimistic, and that optimism leads you to purchasing the ticket… but it’s still “your numbers getting picked” that wins you the lottery. the optimism and ticket-buying actualize that potential, but not the result.

        in any event, best of luck in your ongoing battle. I have seen it go both ways with people close to me, and I wish you only the best :)

        1. The lottery is a bad example, because both the odds of being cured, and the dread of going to the treatment, are much higher with cancer than the lottery. So overcoming the dread is a very significant part of the cure’s efficacy.

          1. I’m not saying that being cured is like winning the lottery – I’m talking about the “tools” available to make it possible for treatment to work. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket (you can’t get rid of the cancer without going to treatment), and “optimism” activates the buying/going… but still isn’t responsible for the outcome.

      2.  Sadly, I wonder whether this may be a confusion of cause and effect.  People who feel like they’re dying are likely to have a worse attitude than those that are convinced that they’re going to live.  And it seems as likely to me that people’s gut feelings of how they’re doing are more accurate than doctors estimates as it does that their attitude is going to have a direct effect on how their cancer progresses.  Of course attitude can certainly affect how diligent people are about continuing with a painful and difficult course of treatment.

      3. FWIW, I’ve had some of the opposite response: quite a few nurses — and friends who have battled breast cancer in the past — who have been openly uncomfortable with my pragmatism and optimism.  Apparently I’m supposed to cry more.

        I take heart in the massive amount of research that has been done and the advancements in treatment that have been developed as a result.  But even that positive attitude would mean nothing if I had the “wrong” type of cancer….a type that hasn’t been as well figured out yet and therefore not as treatable.

      4. I like one of the first things a friend said to me when I told him about my cancer, and then apologized for being weepy – he said don’t apologize – that whatever I was feeling at whatever time was exactly ok. It was a wise thing to say, because it gave me permission to feel bad when I was feeling bad and better when I was feeling better. This is a slightly different thing from showing up for treatment – you have to do that, no matter how you feel. But trying to keep up an optimism that I didn’t always feel would have been exhausting, I think…

  9. I second the commendation for Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog. Science-Based Medicine is another good one for poking holes in quackery.

  10. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with science and faith together, as long as people aren’t *substituting* faith for science. I’m with you 100% for scientific modern medicine (show me the data!), but that doesn’t mean that a great many people can’t also find psychological and spiritual comfort in faith at the same time. It’s when they try to use it in place of science that we get into these messes.

    Oh, and *anyone* that suggests that you caused or deserve breast cancer should be (in the words of Stephen Colbert) “dead to you”. That kind of nastiness just has no place whatsoever.

    1. If it’s comforting, then yes. But there’s a lot of people who are angry at God for causing this pestilence upon them or their children.

      1. Frankly, being angry at god seems a lot healthier than a lot of the downright Stockholm-syndromey alternatives that are usually held up as the morally preferred course.

        If you accept the premise of god (with anything reasonably resembling omnipotence and omniscience, either absolute or relative to human concerns) in the first place, it seems only fair to conclude that tolerating and/or aiding and abetting cancer is kind of a dick move…

  11. The bit I found most jaw-dropping was the fact that some people have actually informed you that this is a result of your (lack of) relationship with god/whatever. Insanity.

    Xeni, you’re doing geat things by exposing nonsense like this – and like everyone else, I wish you the best of health.

    1. I used to go to yoga class with a 70ish woman who had a severe spinal degenerative disease for which she was seeing multiple doctors as well as doing self-care like yoga. She and I were talking before class and some new student informed her that she just needed “a good spiritual cleansing.” Like she was spiritually dirty. We glared at her until she left.

  12. I once had to argue with my grandmother over the fact that homeopathy is just holy water. Former physical therapist and daughter of a nurse herself and I still had to explain this. Snake Oil’s marketing is too good.

      1.  A priest once told me there are two ways to make holy water. One, a priest can bless it. Or two, you can boil the hell out of it.

        1. Well, considering that bubbles are ‘holes’ in the water, then yes, boiling water makes holy water.

          But for ritual purposes, that won’t do the job. Consecration is an entirely different thing from sterilization.

          1. Just in case you’re serious, the priest said it as a joke when he came to visit the class during catechism.

    1. Homeopathy is a quack theory augmented with 200 years of badly-managed trial-and-error experimentation.  While it didn’t take advantage of the Germ Theory of Disease or the later discoveries of how cancer works, and therefore can’t be expected to actually cure disease, that doesn’t mean that homeopaths haven’t occasionally stumbled on plants or other materials that are somewhat consistently helpful in alleviating symptoms.  (And for some problems, like allergies, modern medicine doesn’t have cures either, but treating the symptoms is still helpful, and even if it only works by the Placebo Effect, that’s Just Fine.) 

      Modern medicine can often prevent the flu with vaccination, but until Theraflu came along, if you got sick anyway they didn’t have anything to offer besides aspirin, bed rest, and chicken soup, and I’ve found some homeopathic tablets that can at least reduce the symptoms from “awful” to “mildly unpleasant”. 

      While the liquid versions are usually too dilute to be effective, the solid tablets do often contain measurable quantities of the active ingredients.   (Not always; some are just sugar pills or other binders mixed with over-diluted liquid.)   But compared to some quack herbal medicines, which can be bad for you, at least the diluted-to-nothing homeopathic snake oil is as safe as crystals and aromatherapy, if you don’t use them as a substitute for actual medicine.

    1. I know! The day I can accept that this represents the majority worldview, I will achieve nirvana.

  13. After my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer, it was recommended that I look into MMS (“Miracle Mineral Supplement”) for him. You know what the active ingredient in this “supplement” is? Sodium chlorite, which also happens to contain chlorine. What’s that, you say? You want my cancer-stricken father to start ingesting bleach because it will cure him? No thanks.
    More often than not, these types of quackery make me mad more than anything else.

    1. Worryingly, I’ve had two people recommend that to me as well over the past few years, for my still unexplained respiratory symptoms… :/

      1. Yow!  If you’d been using the stuff, it might explain the respiratory symptoms, but the other way around just seems wrong…

    2. Actually, it’s no more chlorine than table salt is, and its containing chlorine is pretty meaningless. Chlorine is a very useful chemical and appears in many molecules. The problem, here, is that Sodium Clorite is /already bleach/. The fact that it contains chlorine is pretty irrelevant. It’s like saying “This food contains rat poison! And that rat poison has some ground up bugs in it!”

      Still, I can’t imaging it being good for a person since one of its primary uses is killing stuff…

  14. Keep it coming. We’re going to have to work this hard every day for a long time to put an end to fake medicine.

  15. It’s true that alt-med apologists dress up their beliefs in language that sounds scientific

    Just as creationist loons so often do. The only good part is that I suspect it means that empiricism has gained a pretty decent grasp on public imagination despite the efforts of the religionists, and thus they find themselves having to argue against science with the (poorly understood by them) memes of science.

  16. Xeni, this is the perfect post targeted to the perfect audience: that being people who haven’t considered alt-med before but are susceptible to its false promises when they are most vulnerable.  Thank you for sharing it.

    The true believers in alt-med won’t change their views for anything short of a crisis of faith.  If speaking to them in person, thank them for their concern but decline their advice.  If online, ignore them.  I literally talk to alt-med people every day because I work to refute bad science in nutrition, and it takes a lot of scientific knowledge and professional detachment to avoid starting an unproductive debate with them.  My audience is the same as yours – people who haven’t made up their mind yet, not the true believers.

    Maybe Seth Roberts could read this article too. ;)

      1. My point was more tounge in cheek about Seth’s previous posts, and what Orac’s reaction would be to those posts.

        Seth has discussed the success of treating cancer through self-experimentation, but I don’t think it is a major theme of his.


        And he does believe that eating fermented foods boosts the immune system and may specifically prevent cancer (his umami hypothesis):


        But, to the best of my knowledge, he doesn’t flat out say, “Food/treatment X will cure cancer based on self-experimentation.”  I think those kinds of statements are the really dangerous ones.

        1. You are the person most motivated to see to your health. As an example, in clinical trials, ketogenic diets seem effective against some types of brain tumors (at least half the people who stuck to the diets (and not everyone did) saw dramatic improvements in a cancer that should instead have killed them with in months (that was what should have been end stage brain tumors, in europe).

          The scary part about that is that since the Nobel prize in medicine was awarded decades ago for discovering that cancer is hugely glucose dependent, it seems that little or no effort has been spent trying ketogenic diets to treat it (that is to say, depriving cancer of the glucose it needs to grow). The cynic would point out that there is no way to put that in a pill, in fact, no real need for the medical system to be involved at all besides a dietitian to help you with nutrition.

          Perhaps it would be of use for Xeni to try a ketogenic diet? It probably wouldn’t hurt, thought it would be a pain in the ass, and the first three weeks would make her feel poorly (typical adaption period for a low carb diet). I’d try it if it were me, and I would expect my oncologist to, at most, say, sure, try. But I wouldn’t expect support, and after all, it’s not yet been shown to work.

          1. “You are the person most motivated to see to your health.”

            That would explain the obesity epidemic… ;)

            Cancer is not one disease, so there is no one solution (like ketogenic diets) that will work for all forms of cancer.

            “…after all, it’s not yet been shown to work.”

            That short statement speaks volumes.

          2. I’ve never heard the term ketogenic diet. But for what it’s worth, when I was diagnosed (endometrial), the first acupuncturist (an ancient Chinese woman) I talked to said “stop eating sugar – feeds the cancer.” I later asked my oncologist, and she said there was some truth to it, in the sense that the extra insulin stimulated by too much sugar wasn’t good (in general but also for cancer).

          3. I have looked in to this, and discussed it with my doctors. It’s complicated. The evidence doesn’t support the claim that a keto diet will be helpful in my particular case. Nor does the body of evidence support the notion that sugar causes cancer, or that eliminating all forms of sugar (including fresh fruit, for instance) will increase your odds of remission and survival.

            That said, I am very, very mindful of what I put in my body, and I’m not living off pop tarts or anything over here. I limit sugar and simple carb intake for many reasons. Maybe it helps my odds, maybe not, but I’m doing it and it isn’t harming me.

        2. “boosts the immune system” is one of the sciencey phrases the alt-med quacks love to dress up their claims with.

        3. I feel compelled to point out that the nutrition science industry gave us the high carbohydrate diet and healthy, healthy margarine.

          1. I think you are confusing nutritional sciences with food science, two very different fields.

      2. Do a quick search of his blog. He writes a lot about cancer including plugging  Burzynski, and claims about the validity of cancer research. Beyond that he’s the sort of alt med diet guy who makes all sorts of insane claims about diet. Here’s 2 things I found in about 30 seconds with google.

        His “self experimentation” thing is pure schtick. designed to dress up pretty standard CAM claims. It’s tied to the “personalised medicine” claims that are pretty hot with homeopaths and naturopaths these days.

    1. @google-12ad043c65437cc6eaa4d9f18db3706f:disqus , I’d be interested to know what you do and how you got into doing it. 

      and it takes a lot of scientific knowledge and professional detachment to avoid starting an unproductive debate with them 

      This is similar to a frustration I had back when I was a grad student. On several occasions I’d be approached in the library by alternative energy thinkers and similar ‘innovators’ whose ideas either violated thermodynamic laws or seemed like they were probably headed in that direction. They asked for help analyzing or implementing their ideas. My professional intuition, even then, was probably good enough to reject the idea. But to actually do a detailed analysis, responding to every protest,  would require tons of research and work on my part (this was more specialized stuff than the perpetual motion water wheels) and would not likely accomplish anything.  I don’t know how to handle that. “Trust me, that won’t work” is obviously not a very helpful response, but I can’t spend all my working hours detailing critique on why it won’t work either.

      1. bkad,

        You have so hit the nail on the head!  Two sentences from a true believer that would take two hours to answer is my experience as well.

        I’ve run innovation programs for nutritional product companies, so I’ve had hundreds of opportunities to look at the science behind ideas ranging from brilliant to plain wacky.  I’ll listen to anyone’s elevator speech (30 second summary).  If I can’t use the idea, but it is somewhere between brilliant and OK, I’ll try to refer them to someone else who might be able to help.  If the idea is more on the wacky side, I say something like, “I can see where you are going with this, but it is not really something that fits into our current portfolio.  Let me get your card, and I’ll email you if I think of someone who can help you out.  I can’t promise anything though.”  Nowadays I consult on nutrition and science.

        If I find myself in a conversation that gets heavy into alt-med, I tend to ask a lot of questions about WHY they believe what they do.  I actually find that aspect of alt-med very fascinating, and it gives me a more human picture of the person I am getting to know.

        I say “professional detachment,” but I don’t have as much luck maintaining the detachment when the alt-med will harm someone.  That is what I like so much about this blog post!

      2. Not that its quit the same, but I went to film school. Just about everyone I met for the next 6 years immediately demanded I write them a script for this AWESOME movie they thought of. If I didn’t want to kill their dreams I’d just give them some advice on how to do it themselves. A list of decent writing books, script writing programs, movies to watch whatever would get them excited and away from me.

    1. Also Apple couldn’t get financial control over the vastly superior modern medical treatments, so he just refused to allow them on his hardware/OS.

    2. I used to see a Chinese herbalist. Her advice was that if you get cancer, you should go to the doctor for treatment, then come to her to help manage side effects.

      1. Same advice I got, and it was good advice. I had 3 great oncologists (radiation, medical (chem0) and gyno (surgery)), and a really wonderful acupuncturist/Chinese herbalist. The time I spent on her table stuck with needles, listening to temple bells on the headphones, was the best hour of every week. I also had no nausea during the chemo (though she did stop most of the herbs during that phase of treatment – she didn’t want to interfere with the chemo). I think that traditional and complementary medicine can co-exist peacefully. I also emphathize with anyone who has cancer and looks beyond traditional medicine — it’s a terrifying time, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to find hope in non-traditional medicine. I do blame the purveyors who are in it to make money from desperate people…

      2. I don’t trust Chinese herbal medicine at all – some of it may help, but a lot of it’s really scary stuff based on magical theories (and I also blame them for killing rhinos and tigers.) 

        On the other hand, I’ve been to several different accupuncture and Chinese massage practitioners, and some of them have been quite helpful with muscle pain.  None of them could explain to me what a meridian actually was, as a physical structure rather than an imaginary line on their wall charts, and unfortunately one of the better accupressure massage people was also a hopeless quack who wanted to sell me lots of herbs based on hokey woo-woo testing (the stuff where you see how the muscle responds while holding a bottle of Herb A in your hand compared to a bottle of Herb B.)  And while qi is fairly useful in martial arts, that doesn’t require it to actually exist in some way useful for medicine (e.g. a way to push yin or yang through your liver compared to a way to visualize how you’re holding your abdominal muscles.)

  17. Thank you for posting something about this. I don’t have cancer but I do have Multiple Sclerosis and have been told to use every quack cure out there repeatedly for the past 12 years. Magnets, bee stings, orange juice, coral calcium, powdered snake venom, positive thought, vegan-ism, ect ect ect ad nauseam. Then they attack the meds you are on as dangerous insane poison only a suicidal person would ever take. Yeah it’s kinda true, my meds do sometimes have really bad even fatal side effects. On the other hand I can point you to my stack of MRI’s which show no new lesions, no further activity, no new scarring, no further brain shrinkage and my medical reports that show no relapse, no new symptoms and a reduction in old symptoms. A glass of OJ isn’t going to give me that. If it could don’t they think I’d be living in Florida in an orange grove?

  18. i am always saddened to see people fall for quackery.
    a) because it’s bad for them and
    b) because it just goads the pushers to try to sell to more people.
    many people have tried to tell me how this, that and the other [quitting insulin and taking extract of toxic black locust tree?!?!] will cure my type 1 diabetes or my multiple sclerosis – i got so aggravated telling them off that i made a shirt for myself [and people like me]

    1. I love that tee! I have been suggested all sorts of homeoquackery for bipolar myself. I like how you think, we could play “quack bingo”

      1. A slightly more scientific version of quack bingo is the people who tell you that lithium is absolutely the best cure for bipolar.   For some people it works really really well fairly quickly, if they don’t mind the side effects or the relatively narrow range between effective dose and toxic dose.  For other people, like one of my coworkers, it’s just wrong, and she got side effects from most of the other bipolar meds that were available back then as well. 

  19. thanks xeni! i have relatives who use a naturopath… but somehow always end up calling my doctor wife when they don’t get better. 
    and might i add that BB has had a distressing amount of woo the last year (mostly the’i did/stopped doing X and in Y time my Z was gone!’ variety); while the comment wars could be amusing, the premise that correlation was causation was often the only peg their hat was hanging on……

    1. I believe you are referring to the posts by Seth Roberts. Please bear in mind that Roberts is a guest contributor, and a post that any of us individually publishes represents only the individual beliefs of the contributor.

    2. Mark wrote a little intro to one of Seth’s recent posts, and I thought it did a good job of putting Seth’s posts into context: http://boingboing.net/2012/06/25/make-yourself-healthy-daughte.html

      My takeaway was that Mark is interested in what Seth does, and he invited Seth to blog about it.  For me, that drew a bright line between the excellent scientific contributions from Maggie and others, and the not-officially-endorsed-but-perhaps-of-interest-to-some material presented by Seth.  Best of all, I no longer react to Seth’s posts by thinking “Oh geeze, BB.  What were you thinking!”

    3. I defended him in the last comment war he prompted, about self-curing acne, but I am not a fan overall of Seth Roberts. 

      However, I see value in certain aspects of what he’s promoting – the only aspects that BB publishes, as it happens. “I did/stopped doing X and in Y time my Z was gone!” sounds automatically silly, but it can in certain cases be very useful.

      It’s pretty much the same approach that doctors use for mild, non-life-threatening ailments like acne. Doctors will have you try different things and see what happens. Or we can tie this into another classic BB comment war – soap or no soap. Why not try it and see? It won’t hurt you.

      Once you get into the realm of using that approach for anything other than mild issues that people normally treat with over-the-counter solutions, then yes, you’re doing it wrong. If you have cancer or a similarly deadly illness and you try self-experimentation, you will die.

      Proponents of alt-health stuff, like Seth Roberts, are past the point where they can distinguish between what’s reasonable to self-experiment with and what isn’t. That doesn’t invalidate his methodology if you want to cure your acne, dandruff, body odor, foot fungus, or whatever other cosmetic thing that persistently and stubbornly ails you, though.

      The issue is that most people are not intelligent BoingBoing readers and do not realize this and do not treat people like Seth Roberts with the required scrutiny and skepticism. 

      Some woman cures her acne by reducing dairy in her diet, and BoingBoing publishes something about it, and that’s great – it can work and is not an unreasonable thing to try. It does not then follow that the same thing will work for cancer, obviously, but that leap is very easy for a lot of people to mistakenly make. And we can (and do) rightly criticize people who promote that idea, even if it’s the same person whose idea about curing acne we liked and/or found interesting.

      It’s a difficult balance between killing woo with fire and realizing that for non-life-threatening things, you can’t always rely on science finding a cure for you. Just as you can’t rely on science finding a cure for your life-threatening ailment either, of course! But you must embrace science and let it give you its best shot.

  20. What is probably most religious about alt-medicine is the ‘us vs them’ thinking. As someone raised (and still nominally) Christian, I’ve heard many a sermon that took as its premise that Christians are a persecuted minority in the United States — which is hilariously untrue from a demographic standpoint, and frustratingly untrue from the perspective any real persecuted minority. Similarly, a lot of alt-medicine advocates start with the premise that the medical field is conspiring against them to suppress their alt-cures, because doctors make money on keeping people sick, or because they are blinded by godless darwinism, or because corporations are automatically evil, or somesuch.

    I haven’t chosen (yet) to go into a biomedical field, but as a science and engineering type, I find it personally insulting when people suggest that my fellow researchers are going into a field they care about (whether it is because they care about the people, the science, or both) and then deliberately subverting the very objectivity that makes them researchers. I’m sure it happens, but really…

    1. It is not that doctor’s make money keeping people sick, it’s that 1. they are trained to treat the symptoms instead of the cause. (Example always give fever reducer to people with a fever). 2. They have to worry more about liability then reducing cost and improving care for everyone.
      However, alt medicine usually treats neither, and has little legal liability in many cases.The solution I suggest for 1. instead is a shift in thinking that favors research and medicine that treats causes (For example antibiotics instead of painkillers), and for research on the prevention of illness through healthy lifestyles and environments. For 2. is Tort reform.

  21. But have you heard the good news about… shark cartilage?  That one always floored me, since it just seems so transparently ridiculous even compared to things like coffee enemas, but they sell millions of bottles to suckers.

    1. this kind of “alternative medicine,” much like animal-product-based asian “traditional medicine,” is what really gets to me.  people are not only being willful idiots, but they’re also killing off other species en masse while they’re doing it.

    2. I prefer tiger penis.  Not dried and powdered and not as a medicine, if you know what I mean.

    3.  Here in Australia, they busted Pan Pharmaceuticals for (among other things) selling beef cartilage and calling it shark cartilage.  Good riddance to those scammers.

      1. Though if you weren’t going to just ban them outright for selling phony medicine I’d rather have them use beef or chicken bits for the placebo!

    4. Hey, coffee enemas are definitely going to get your attention.  It’s not how I like to consume my coffee, and if you need the caffeine even faster you could smoke the stuff (ProTip:  Don’t.  Really.)  but they say there’s no accounting for taste. 

      Shark cartilage must work – it’s inside sharks, and sharks don’t get cancer.  Of course, zucchinis don’t get cancer either, and you can eat those without being attacked by zucchini with big sharp teeth and lasers on their heads.

      1.  Thx Xeni. It is interesting though, how far celebrity can take you. I blog about all aspects of cancer research but that one post about Dr Oz being a quack still stands as my most visited page bar none – almost 2x more than any other story I have written about. Celebrity still sells, even if indirectly on one’s blog when being “anti-celebrity”.

    1. I haven’t read your blog post yet (I will after writing this), but I really agree with your post here, and Xeni’s reply, about Oz. 

      Over time, he has evolved from offering fairly constructive advice to obnoxious self-promotion, shilling for products and well, he’s starting to emanate the Fat Elvis in Las Vegas / Dr. Phil vibe. 

      A couple of years ago his RealAge site was good for what it was, and was worth visiting. It too has become, well, sleazy. There’s the huxterism, but also product promotions that are not exactly ethical because because they don’t exactly appear to be promotions at even second glance. Then there’s the (IMHO) the email list abuse.  And a lot of other stuff…

      1.  As someone who is involved in trying to make complex science (in my case, cancer research) accessible to the public at large, I have great admiration for Oz as an adult educator. His easy-going manner and his style and his examples and models and hands-on demos are great for teaching us about human disease and physiology. So I give him his due in that arena.

        But now that he has become more huckster than educator, I just can’t stand watching the program anymore.

        It must be tough to find enough of interest to sustain a show on a daily basis. I suspect that its descent into worthlessness is a result of it very own popularity.

        1. Yes, I agree that Dr. Oz is an effective adult educator who delivers his content in an accessible, easy to digest format. My criticisms are not personal. I’ve never even been in the same room as Dr. Oz, but my read (grok) of him is that he’s sincere, knows his subject and is genuinely concerned about public health. 

          Nevertheless, our criticisms are valid. I’m sure that most of this is driven by his employers at the network and maybe just a smidge of him learning to adjust his public persona to being a relatively new celebrity. As for his website, I’m sure there are biz manager’s, investors and whatnot that also have input into how the site is run. 

          I really, really wish our public television is even an eighth as funded, supported and robust as the BBC’s. If we had anything like the BBC in the U.S., persons such as Dr. Oz could deliver their content and make a reasonable amount of money doing it, without compromising their message or having to do the sponsor shuffle.

  22. Thanks for sharing this.
    Though now I am going to see if there’s a place I can still buy actual snake oil.

    1.  I doubt there ever was any real snake oil in the original snake oil. I would recommend making your own out of ball pythons. They grow fast and are easy to handle. I recommend against king snakes. Nasty tempers.

    2. Here you go, Old West Snake Oil:  http://www.oldwestsnakeoil.com/index.html  $16.00 per one ounce bottle, but shipping is expensive.  Buy three bottles, get a pair of applicator gloves free, and the shipping isn’t so bad.

      Its real uses are listed as oiling wooden gun stocks and antique woods and metals.  There are no claims of curative powers on living tissue, but it is supposed to restore leather.

      You’ll find that the marketing is about what you might expect for Snake Oil.  For example, there’s an anecdotal claim that if you rub it on your antiques, you will increase their value from 5% to 20%.  That sure sounds like Snake Oil to me.

  23. I think calling them murderers is extreme.  I have breast cancer and also went on a massive research binge after diagnosis.  This post and the responses lump together and vilify a lot of different things.    People are making momentous choices that can affect whether they live or die.  That deserves more careful treatment and compassion  than it has gotten here.

    If it later turns out that a vegan, smoothie-drinking, supplement-taking, detoxing lifestyle can delay recurrence for years, in conjunction with traditional treatment,  then what will we say about the people who ridiculed this option?  People thought heart disease couldn’t be reversed with diet until Dean Ornish showed that it could. I don’t think the post was ridiculing this, but with the tone of it and the comments, it felt like all alternative options were being tarred with the same brush.

    So many things are wrong with our medical system, in both traditional medicine and also alternative, that I think it takes faith to believe in either one.    I have read so many articles about drug company malfeasance that I no longer trust mainstream medicine 100%.  Mainstream medical researchers are not monks working in the pure interest of Science. Profit determines what gets researched, reported, and sold.  In choosing either mainstream or alternative, you are making a choice based on limited and possibly biased information.

    So you put your faith in mainstream medicine or you lose your faith in mainstream and you hope that there is *something* that can help you in alternative medicine.   Either way it seems to me it’s an act of faith. And I say this as someone who was once accused of worshipping science.  I would hope that there would be more careful thinking about this issue and less ridicule. Some alternative medicine is, indeed, useless or harmful, but some will probably end up as mainstream medicine someday.

    Xeni, I am thinking about you and hoping you feel better and succeed gloriously in beating cancer!…….  I am also wondering whether time spent at computers is a contributing factor for cancer, thinking of Jobs and the guy who wrote the Last Lecture, and a blogger at Salon….

    1.  in conjunction with traditional treatment,  

      that’s the key phrase. The “murderers” I’m calling out are the ones who would tell you that diet and guided visualizations alone, for example, will cure your cancer. With no medicine required. And that you should shell out thousands or millions for their particular brand of that non-medicine.

      Of course diet, exercise, stress management, other complementary factors are good to pursue. I am not saying otherwise.

    2. And importantly:

      If it later turns out that a vegan, smoothie-drinking, supplement-taking, detoxing lifestyle can delay recurrence for years, in conjunction with traditional treatment,  then what will we say about the people who ridiculed this option?  

      The quality of a decision is dependent on the information available at the time the decision is made. You’re not allowed to judge people based on things which haven’t happened yet or which weren’t known at the time.

      Absurd extreme: betting my retirement savings at a casino game and later winning millions of dollars does not mean it was a good decision for me to bet my retirement savings at a casino game.

      Real life example: My parents gave me Triaminic (cold medicine, chlorpheniramine and phenylpropanolamine) for years when I was a young child. Was that a bad choice? No; based on everything anyone knew, it was a benign medicine. But the drug has since been deemed risky enough to be pulled off the market.

      Based on the information currently available to us, most alt-medicine is not productive for treating disease, and it is at best ‘unhelpful’ to promote it, so it is a bad decision to do so. If some alt treatment later turns out to be useful, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean the people promoting that treatment today are correct.

  24. Thanks for sharing this and speaking out. Of course chemo and radiation are unpleasant and people would rather avoid them, but they’re proven to be the best we’ve got for now. And they’re a lot better than they used to be (my father in law had treatments for cancer over a 20 year period and said the chemo isn’t as hard as it used to be.)

  25. I have a friend on facebook who wasn’t feeling so hot, and her friends were advising her to pray and when I spoke up and told her to see a doctor since she had insurance, I was called out for being married to someone “in the industry.”
    My husband is a manufacturing engineer for a company which makes radiotherapy machines.
    Anyway, she now posts countdowns to her stomach-stapling surgery with devout praise for Jesus.
    The magical thinking required for alternative medicine certainly seems related to the more fundemental religious types.

      1. It’s funny how God likes to use trained medical professionals just this past century. I guess He got tired of the laying-on-hands technique.

      2. “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!”    <– Mr. Mojo Rising.   And anyway,  those doctors are getting really pissed at God for using them without their permission, not to mention in such a random way. 

  26. i think it is equally true in the world of mental illness, and just as dangerous. i experienced it first hand when someone close to me was diagnosed bi-polar and family members wanted this person to take capsules of some root rather than the pills prescribed by a mental health professional. the end result was that it gave him reasons to distrust his doctor and he stopped the course of medication. +1 for alt-med

    1. In my experience, getting a bi-polar person to stop taking their medication is both an incredibly easy task and a monumental feat of dickery (not on par with getting them to stop cancer treatment most, but then it depends on the severity of the bi-polar condition too – it can still be lethal).

      Not that I’m terribly keen on psychiatric medicine, which has plenty of it’s own woo woo and charlatans and understands practically none of what it’s doing. But if the competition is alt-med, well… they look like shining paragons of scientific virtue and medical knowledge.

    2. Like someone said above, a scientifically proven “alternative medicine” is medicine.

      St John’s Wort contains some natural SSRI type antidepressants.  So you can take St J’s W at an unknown, unquantified dose in a supplement, or you can take a highly studied, exactly known dose of a SSRI scrip med.

      Red yeast rice contains some naturally occurring statins.  My mother in law wanted the doctor who works out the back of her natural foods store to recommend a red yeast rice supplement.  I stuck with the scrip written by my doctor for a statin for cholesterol.

  27. Yes, yes, yes. With the caveats 1) treatments that dont make $ typically can’t get through FDA because a company needs to pay the huge bills (and take the risk); 2) sometimes that “quack” idea the establishments mocks, ends up being right. But no snake oil please.

    1. That’s why we have academia, and why whenever our heads aren’t stuck up our own asses, we give them money. So they do the research Big Pharma won’t.

  28. Espresso … enemas? That sounds like a really unpleasant way to get a really unpleasant caffeine overdose.

    The “positive thinking” people make me headdesk the most. Because when you’re undergoing major physical stress (like cancer), yeah, it’s useful to manage your stress, anxiety, and depression. There are genuinely useful, well-researched cognitive-behavioral techniques and strategies that can help people cope mentally and emotionally with what’s happening to them physically. As discussed upthread, that can help patients continue with a tough course of treatment, help them stay motivated to do the things that actually have a shot at helping them get better.

    But the people who take that and turn it into “You can cure yourself with the power of positive thinking!” — no. Just no. That is not how it works. And the people who then twist it around and say that you somehow deserved or caused your own cancer because you “thought negatively”? Those people just make me furious. How dare anyone say that? Is it so important to them to live in a fantasy world where thinking in the “right” way can give them control over whether they get cancer, that they think it’s okay to actively hurt someone with cancer?

    1. I’ve ran across various claims in my travels that coffee enemas were very popular – the most popular – in Britain, and this is why Britain, even now, favours tea.

      Positive thinking: this can be useful, but common sense and various studies and etcetera say that too much positive thinking isn’t good. 

      (I’m drawing a blank on references and don’t feel like Googling for them.)

    2. “Collapse Espresso … enemas? That sounds like a really unpleasant way to get a really unpleasant caffeine overdose.” The only known case of death by caffeine overdose, guess how it was accomplished.

    3. Espresso … enemas?

      As I’ve mentioned a few times, we had a patient who gave himself a coffee enema without letting it cool and bought himself a colostomy because he cooked his innards. The thing is that he was an old, conservative-looking guy and apparently was just taking some bad advice from one of his grandchildren.

  29. >>Green smoothies are great, but they alone cannot cure cancer.

    For six years I drank green smoothies, took my vitamins, followed a pescetarian diet, and exercised with the hopes that I would prevent myself from getting cancer.  This year, I decided to stop deluding myself by thinking that healthy habits would keep me from getting this disease.  I have the BRCA1 gene, which gave me an 87% chance of getting cancer in my lifetime.

    Now my breasts are gone…and I just eat healthy and drink green smoothies because they are good for me ( : 


  30. Fabulous post.

    If you haven’t already, you might like to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s indictment of the positive-thinking culture, “Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” She spends some time on cancer and victim-blaming.

  31. Exactly so. 
    I know a lot of people seem to have a ‘live and let live’ attitude about these alternative therapies, but they definitely toe the line between callous mispractice and downright murder.  Not only because they peddle false, unproven, potentially dangerous hope, but also because they rob people who are suffering of the time and effort to pursue valid, proven treatments. 

    It’s a struggle to decide on the correct treatment and steel yourself for the pain, discomfort and mental suffering that accompanies it. These charlatans who dangle out these false cures should rightly be exposed and persecuted. 

    1. “Prosecuted”, not “persecuted”, please.  Just as we should expect someone who is treating someone else’s health to be a medical professional, we should demand the same professionalism in the search for justice.  Do it for no other reason than to not give them a martyrdom card to play when selling their quackery.

      Vigilantism is to justice as faith healing is to medicine.

  32. Dr Steve Novella, from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast,  wrote about his 2011 appearance on the Dr. Oz show:  http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/a-skeptics-in-oz/
    Dr Novella describes the manipulative and, frankly, dishonest way in which his skeptical view of Oz’s woo-based medicine were portrayed during his appearance on the show. It makes for both interesting and infuriating reading.

  33. While I’m not with coffee enemas or rattlesnake powder as cancer cures, I’m also not with Orac that complementary medicine is bullshit. As another real cancer patient (endometrial), I’m getting both chemo and alternative/integrative treatments, both through *Stanford Medical Center* as part of their standard care. (Interested readers can look up Stanford’s Supportive Care program.) Nobody, including oncologists, promises a cure; it’s percentages at best. I’ve been surprised & fascinated to see how much of my “conventional” medical care involves doctors basically throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, especially for things like antibiotics and chemo (sometimes that fuzziness is comforting, sometimes not very; this is not the part of the TV series House that I want my treatment to emulate). It’s good that at least Stanford accepts the idea that, for reasons they don’t completely understand yet, hard-to-quantify treatments can still give patients the edge they need to live longer well and even survive.  I wish others could do the same. 

    Xeni, you say, albeit down in the comments, that “of course diet, exercise, stress management, other complementary factors are good to pursue.”  Okay, but too many people writing on this topic, including Orac and a lot of the commenters here, seem to tar all alternative and integrative options with the same brush — that’s bad science too. I’m completely with Heather Booth up above.

    1. Agreeing here. I am a cancer patient with Metastatic Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma. If you look that one up, it’ll just depress you (trust me) since the chances of survival after metastisis get rather low. And the only treatments (so far) that have an effect are resection and radiation (and they can’t at this point so either of those things to my lungs). So the docs at MD Anderson also have me seeing the folks in their Complementary Medicine department, for nutrition advice, bloodwork to make sure my vitamins / minerals are right (turned out I was deficient in a lot of things) and offering Qui Gong classes and Yoga!

      tl:dr – when my doctors are actually referencing alternative/complementary studies that support some of the non-traditional medicine options we are pursuing, I am much more inclined to take *their* advice over someone frothy comments on a blog.

  34. While I do not have anything to contribute to this thread beyond my support of Science.  I would also like to send out Hugs to anyone on this thread that needs one.   (I realize the dichotomy in that.)

  35. Xeni,

    Stick with the facts. That’s basically what you said, but far more brilliantly. You are right on the mark with this post. 

    “If I had fake cancer, I’d totally use fake cancer cures. But I have real cancer.”

    Love that and I couldn’t agree more.  


  36. I totally believe that my Mom’s attitude saved her from death from lung and lymph node cancer, not an easy one to beat 25 years ago, now.  The attitude she took was, “EFF YOU, CANCER!  I’m going to show you who’s boss.”  As a result, she dutifully attended every chemo appointment for two rounds and every radiation appointment to make a point to cancer that she was in control and was going to win.  So, obviously it wasn’t the attitude that literally saved her life, but it gave her the strength to go through what she did to get free of it.

    She supplemented with vitamins and traditional Chinese medicine, but she wouldn’t just do those things alone, she felt it couldn’t hurt on top of the regular science-y treatments.

    I agree that people who try to convince others to do only alt-medicine are definitely doing harm.  And those who do it solely to make money, well, yes, what you said.

    1. And, just to mention, it might actually work since retroviruses can insert genetic code into immune cells pretty well.  This isn’t injecting people with HIV for this treatment, it is lobotomizing HIV to carry genes that help immune cells kill cancer.  Let’s hope it actually works.

      But it does have a sweet FU CANCER aspect to it!

  37. You know, it could be said that the old timey snake oil traveling salesman could be forgiven for attempting to make a profit selling a bottle of opium laced solution to someone that had a disease for which there was no known cure anyway. While still despicable, at least he wasn’t preventing someone from seeking a medical cure, as none existed.

    Contrast that with today’s miracle cures like Miracle Mineral and homeopathy and late night infomercial scam artists like kevin trudeau, and you have a situation where actual cures/treatments exist through modern medical science, but people are being steered away from them by these “people” who are simply trying to separate you from your money.

    It’s one thing to sell someone an “ionizing” bracelet to cure “bad chi”. It’s quite another to push plain tap water (homeopathy) as a cure for cancer.

  38. Great article and I agree with every word.
    Now, somehow I DO think that there somewhere is an herb in the Brazilian jungle or wherever else, that will provide a cure; it’s just that nobody has found it yet.

    1. Sadly,  that is a perfect example of “woo thinking.”  You have no rational reason to expect any random chemical produced by any random plant will cure “cancer” (which is, as others pointed out,  hundreds of different diseases), but you still believe it will happen.  

        1. You’re completely missing the point.  Yes, we may get lucky, but it’s rather less than guaranteed. 

    2. The problem is there are almost as many unique cancers as there are patients.  Cancer is damage to a cell’s genetic material that causes that cell to reproduce it wildly.  But drugs pretty much only target specific mechanisms.  Any “anti-cancer” drug would act like a broken glass protection system in your car designed only protect you against 6.375″ x 1.125″ triangles of broken glass in case of an accident.  No single drug is likely to be a generic solution.

      They are working on a lot of things, including customized gene therapies that analyze your cancer cells and create a drug that is precisely targeted to your personal disease.  For now they’re very expensive and risky because each patient essentially requires the development of a new drug before they die from their cancer.  But it’s progress.

      For now, generic (and sometimes devastating) therapies such as surgery, chemo, and radiation still do most of the work of treatment, and offer the best chances for survival.  There are also occasional slivers of hope, such as using surgery and Iodine-131 for treating thyroid cancer, but those work only because of the properties of thyroid tissue being the only tissue in the body that absorbs iodine, not because of the properties of the cancer itself.  Those kinds of treatments are unfortunately not something that can be expanded to treat other forms of cancer.

      Sorry to disillusion you, but the chances are very high that there’s no Medicine Man style cure present in an orchid high up in the canopy of the Amazon jungle.  And that’s not an altogether bad thing, because if there was, people would raze the last of the forests harvesting them.  Heck, they used to cut down trees just to collect the flowers.  Think what they’d do for a billion dollar cure!

  39. “Let me be blunt: I think people who sell fake cancer cures are murderers.”

    At what point does personal responsibility come into play here?

    1. At what point does personal responsibility come into play here?

      Let’s not victim-blame, shall we?

      A con-man who tricks someone into sharing their credit card number is still a thief. 

      A horny frat boy who gets a coed so drunk she passes out so he can violate her while she’s unconscious is still a rapist.

      A quack who sells a fake life-saving cure to a person who needs a real one is still a murderer.

  40. Yay Xeni! Big hug from random lurker—great post. (I like Orac too, have for a long time, and Peter Bowditch too at the Millenium Project (yes, one n)).

  41. New favorite term: ND. Not Doctor. 

    There’s a strong mind-body connection. However, that mind-body connection is exactly what the woo-woo/snake oil pushers use as a lever to get someone to completely forget science and cling to what amounts to quasi-religious bullcrap. 

    I survived my trip thru the medical care car wash (version: breast cancer treatment) by focusing on how to be as proactive as possible on my own behalf. That included some serious introspection, alongside what I call “surrendering to the process” – the TREATMENT process, not herbs/yoga/nutrition/meditation/partridge-in-pear-trees.

    Western medicine ain’t perfect, but maybe we could hold a seance to ask Steve Jobs how he feels about woo-woo now? That could be highly instructive.

    Oh, and rads SUCKS. Chemo was a breeze compared to rads. However, once you’re done getting lit up from within, it only takes about 60 days to crawl from the glowing wreckage. Survivable. Really.

    Hang in. Kick ass. Keep takin’ names.

    1. Who doesn’t believe in herbs? Coffee is really more of a shrub, but if you go outside, you can find herbs growing all over. Taking a strict botanical definition, they even include grass, which is what strawmen are made from.

    2. You need to think before leaping.  Coffee has been around for long enough that we know (in moderation) it is not harmful.   That caffeine is a stimulant is also easily testable and verifiable.   The “herbs” of which you speak fail all scientifically controlled tests.   You might as well say we’re a fool for using machines because only airplanes (a type of machine) can make us fly.

  42. Xeni, first off I have tremendous sympathy to what you’re going through. I had childhood leukemia.  I am grateful to be cured, though I’m now living with some of the side effects of the radiation and chemo medicine (weak heart muscle, etc).   It’s certainly true there are quacks out there, and both ends of the spectrum can be accused of trying to make money at our expense. I just wish that Science with a capital S could be easily separated from the money-making and political aspects, because then there would not be a built-in bias to test and approve the most funded, patentable solutions made by so-called Big Pharma.  As it stands, were there some sort of natural way or life-style change to cure cancer, discovered by a real doctor, tested using scientific methods, would it not be shunned as quackery by the establishment, never tested or approved by the official scientific channels?

  43. Most Christians I know would respond with “We’re praying for you,” or if they knew you weren’t one, the more generic “We’re thinking of you.” Followed by “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” They’d probably leave you a hotdish, too.

  44. I’m a skeptic, an atheist, a functional medical loving science nerd and an evidence based acupuncturist.  I’m all about the complementary road.  Homeopathy is stupid as is a ton of “woo” medicine…but and it’s a mighty fine big but…there is legit health happening out there from various herbs, supplements, etc. Unfortunately mindless marketing, a lack of sometimes even a basic understanding of the sciences and even semantics can mess up the conversation.   But please people…understand that there are thoughtful, intelligent and educated “woo” doctors out there trying to cut through the bullshit who actually and ethically help people.

  45. Nutrition/vitamins/minerals are not ‘complementary’, they are sound medical advice – but alt med has co-opted them somehow as something ‘big medicine’ doesn’t do, in an attempt to boost their own legitimacy.

  46. I have a good friend I’ve had to take a break from lately, because she feels I “could be kinder” about her beliefs.  She’s a follower of Anita Moorjani, who claims to have cured her cancer by having a near-death experience with total organ failure during which benevolent aliens from another dimension explained to her that she could either choose to die, or to return to life completely healthy and cancer-free.

    She also follows the Ener-Chi guy, who sells paintings which you’re supposed to look at daily in order to cure various ailments.  Protip:  There’s one painting, which costs the same as all the others, that cures absolutely everything, so only an idiot would buy any of the other paintings.  
    Anyway, that idiot taught her that our mistake with cancer lies in struggling so hard against it.  It’s not the cancer that’ll get you, it’s the chemotherapy and the radiation.  Cancer is only misunderstood; it’s not a disease at all, but simply the body’s way of “detoxifying” itself.  She explained it to me using the analogy of mushrooms. Mushrooms, you see, are the forest floor’s way of disposing of toxins for optimal forest-floor health.  And a cancerous tumor is like the body’s toxin-eating mushroom.

  47. Ms Jardin-

    Earlier this evening I was telling my wife about this post and how you have been contending with breast cancer. I told her that I had been deeply saddened when earlier this year I learned about this challenge, and also very inspired by your openness and clarity when writing about it. I want you to know that many, many people have you and yours in their hearts and minds and are cheering for you, wishing you well. What you are doing here at BoingBoing, as well as your other colleagues, is good, good in the fundamental sense. It improves the lives others. Well, and finally, I am a big fan of yours – so fight, fight and win. Dale duro a ese cancer, dale un puntapie en el mismisimo trasero, carajo!

  48. I don’t have the statistics, but this brings to mind ancedotal comments that approximately everyone originally in ACT-UP/SF who split off to form ACT-UP/Golden Gate (now Survive AIDS) died, after attempting woo cures and denying that the HIV virus caused AIDS.  Nearly everyone who has gotten diagnosed and gone on the modern retrovirals hasn’t, though there are exceptions and the retrovirals are pretty bad.

    1.  It was the early retrovirals that were killin everyone .Azt. to be exact. Have you watched House of numbers.? You should watch it. its on netflix

  49. Xeni – a brilliant and fabulous post. I share the opinion of your radiation oncologist that modern medicine is far from perfect. But we are doing our very best with the knowledge that we currently have to treat a horrendous disease. I have occasionally been told that as a Western-trained physician I am part of a big pharmaceutical company conspiracy that is holding back the cure for cancer. For the record –  and I think I speak for many other physicians who treat patients with this terrible disease – nothing would please me more than to have the day come when I do not have an office full of newly diagnosed terrified women who have just been told “you have cancer”. I will gladly find another line of work.
    Keep up the writing – please. You are helping so many.

    1. One of the things that keeps me sane Deanna is realizing that people who resort to attacking you personally don’t have anything else to say to refute your point.  In the alt-med field, it quickly sorts out the believers from the thinkers by looking at who resorts to ad hominem attacks or fanaticism versus who wants to talk about whether something actually works.

  50. Reminds me of a conversation witha friend who insisted cancer could be cured with “freeeeequuencieeees.”

    “Frequencies of what?” I asked. “Light? Sound? Electrical current?”

    “You know,” she replied with obvious exasperation. “Freeeeeequeencieeees.”

    “You understand that a frequency is just a unit of measure,” I countered. “It’s like saying you can cure cancer with ounces, or inches, or tablespoons.”

    “You know what your problem is?” she said. “You have to intellectualize everything.”

  51. He was refering to emf’s which is the rife machine. there is video of this machine killing lymes spirokeets and other bacteria. Sound waves are now being used to destroy tumors w great success in treating prostate cancer and promise to make chemo and radiation obsolete ! google, focused ultrasound.

  52. Lumping all natural cancer treatments together is wrong and  more and more cancer centers and  docs are using or suggesting “complementary” treatments”. These include high dose vitamins, herbs,diet and more. I have studied alt. cures for quite sometime and have personally met people who beat cancer without chemo, radiation, or surgery. Its one thing to read it but when n you meet a Gerson patient , alive 30 years later, its very powerful. There is tons of science behind alt/natural cures. One small example is Cannabis oil for cancer. Science has proved it caused autophages in cancer both in vetro and ex vivo. I watched  an “abnormal” mole vanish in 2 weeks with cannabis oil. The truth certain chemo drugs are derived from plant alkloids. Do not underestimate the power of plants in the fight against cancer.

    1. Do you have cancer? I am guessing you do not. Did you get the mole checked by a dermatologist to see if it was cancerous? I can’t give medical advice, but if I were you, I would do that.

      Gerson’s a lying sack of shit who makes money off of desperate frightened people who have cancer.

      Cellular experiments and human trials are two very different things. I agree with you that the potential medical benefits in marijuana are very promising. I would not forgo currently available medical treatment for, say, Rick Simpson’s idea of a cancer cure. We need more science. Legalize marijuana science in the United States now.

  53. Xeni,  I’m sorry you have to go through this.  I myself had to do 12 months of Hepatitis C  treatment in 2003.  It wasn’t as invasive as radiation, but did cause a lot of side effects similar to those you experience with chemo.  My treatment was successful, but I was lucky…the genotype I was diagnosed with has a much lower remission rate than the other two flavors which only have a 6 month treatment cycle.

    Anyway you are right to call out the super quacks for profit.  However, I do feel that it is unwise to discount anything natural.  Coffee enemas are bullshit you feel good doing them because you are getting a massive dose of caffeine. As well as homopathy…sorry to those of you who believe in these things, they really don’t make a lot of sense except that they work on the concept of faith healing.

    What I had found throughout my treatment and dealing with the side effects is this…basically the drugs you are given via science based medicine do what they are designed to do, however they wreak havoc on your endocrine system and cause major vitamin deficiencies.   These vitamin deficiencies and glandular disruptions are the major culprits that cause the undesirable side effects.    Unfortunately, the way the pharma industry works, they could care less about informing you about what deficiencies their drugs will cause…mainly because they really don’t know because they are so focused on the target problem. 

    My dad worked for a major pharma company for over 30 years, I would read the sales literature and info they gave to docs.  Most docs don’t read it this is why you end up suffering and doing all the work.  Ask specific questions about what vitamins the drugs they are prescribing will drain from your body and they will either wave off your questions or just tell you to eat right and exercise.  This doesn’t give you much to work with, so I highly recommend research and self experimentation.

    I saw mention of positive attitude in several comments, while it should never be relied upon as a sure path to a cure…it will make a difference.  Antinous made a good comment about how stress can have a direct effect on your insulin response…it can also effect your adrenals which in turn cascade effects on your thyroid and then your thymus.  Your immune system malfunctions when your thyroid and thymus are compromised.  Thyroid issues alone will make you feel like dogshit, but thymus problems directly effect your immune system.Successful treatments are more about balancing deficiencies to minimize stressful side effects and doing things you love that keep you calm, happy and looking forward to a better day. Believing you have something to live for goes a looonnnnnggg way.Now I realize that cancer is way different than viral hepatitis, however both treatments rely on apoptosis (programmed cell death).  The immune system is in charge of this process. Keeping your endocrine system balanced is your main goal…so keep this in your sights when doing research to help you deal with side effects.I used both natural and pharma treatments to gain my success, I always suggest others look into doing the same.  Read, test and feel, if it feels like it’s not helping move on to the next thing on the list. Rinse and repeat.  There are vitamins and herbs that do make a difference, you just have to find the ones that work for your body. But vitamins and herbs alone can’t do all the work.BTW, the best way to tell if someone is selling you snake oil is if they try to convince you that their way is the only way you’ll find a cure.  Good luck Xeni, rely on what you believe, never give up and set your sights on those people you know and read about who have succeeded in beating it.  KNOW that you will join them at the finish line. 

  54. Xeni you are AMAZING. i work in cancer research and what you said about radiation, chemo etc. not being the best but at least science/evidence based and what we have to work with right now, is so on point. scientists are extremely concious of this, and constantly trying to improve upon these technologies and find out who they work best for. i love orac, this is so well written and refreshing to hear from a non-scientist in a public forum such as this!

  55. Great post, and I agree with your comment about murderers. I have seen such a case personally. A woman who we saw with very early breast cancer, left town for the woo woo treatments somewhere, came back a year or so later with far advanced disease. 
    A few other comments – you mention that your oncology nurses say how helpful a positive attitude is. With all due respect, this is not science, I think you are veering off into the unproven (to the best of my knowledge, and I would be glad to be informed if there are any studies that show conclusively that positive attitude has any positive effect on a cancer).
    Also, the edge between quack medicine and quack nutrition is very grey. Some things (like more fiber in the diet perhaps protecting against colon cancer) have undergone some actual scientific study, but most of what I see in the Whole Foods store is unsubstantiated claims. I do not believe without proof that eating something labeled as “organic” in any way saves me.  And there is really no proof that, after you have controlled caloric intake, that there is much you can do with diet. Even controlling intake of saturated fats, although it is known to be one of the risk factors we can control, isn’t that effective for most. That is why statin drugs exist.
    Even then, you are lowering your risk somewhat.

    One other observation I have made over the years is that, psychologically, one of the most terrifying aspects of a cancer diagnosis is a loss of control. It seems that many of the quack cures center on adjusting what you put in your mouth, and many people I think are comforted by the thought that they might be able to fix themselves by changing diet. Sadly, many of them have absorbed that in some way, it is their own fault, because they had a twinkie every month. After they are made to feel guilty, they are very vulnerable to people who would direct them down a different path, a path that is usually very profitable to someone. 

    There is something else here that has always puzzled me. Drug companies must spend billions of dollars to bring a drug to market, with lots of studies that have to show safety and efficacy. However, it seems that any idiot can market some ground up plant as a cure for any particular disease, and sell it on TV, so long as somewhere in the fine print it says words to the effect “this isn’t really proven, and we aren’t really telling you to treat your problem with this despite what you read above.” Current burr-under-the-saddle is Joe Theissman selling some prostate thing. Why this is allowed to exist, I simply don’t know.

  56. One other observation – you say that chemo and radiation are nasty, and don’t work all that well. I understand where this is coming from. Obviously, we want magic bullets that cure cancer, and leave everything else alone. I am aware of one, and that is radioactive iodine for thyroid cancer. The thyroid cancer sucks up the iodine in concentrations far far higher than any other tissue in the body, and it kills itself, pretty much leaving the rest of the body alone. 
    But – here is a glass half full thought. Prior to about 1940 or 1950, not one person was cured of breast cancer. So over the 3-5 million year history of humans, everyone who contracted this died of it. In the last few years since this, treatments have become less onerous, and more effective, and now there are some forms that are close to 100% cure. Really, while we all want a cure in our lifetimes, taking the long view shows that going from no cures to many cures in the last 70 years is pretty good progress. (and everyone, is trying to make it better)

  57. I completely agree that one should give pause to any alternative/complementary therapy practitioner who tells you that your cancer can be ‘cured’ by trying this or that therapy. There’s no guarantee that even with allopathic cancer treatments that you will be cured, but there is sufficient statistical data to suggest that treatments will be effective for a percentage of the population based on certain criteria.

    I am a complementary therapy practitioner, and I advocate the use of the services I offer to support the body as part of a holistic approach to self-care and wellness. I would never tell a client not to continue with their medical treatment, nor would I tell someone they got cancer because they were “too angry”or “lacked faith.” It is neither responsible, nor is it compassionate. 

    There are many complementary therapies that can help people feel more supported, balanced, and help ease the side effects of cancer treatments so they can enjoy improved quality of life. Not every therapy works the same way for people, and consumers should be educated about potential contraindications. (For example, herbs and vitamin supplements should not be taken during cancer treatment without approval from your oncologist because they may reduce effectiveness of the chemotherapy drugs.) Sometimes, the healing process for a person is accelerated as a result of a alternative/complementary therapy they may have tried (alone or in conjunction with allopathic treatment) but there is no science to indicate these therapies will work consistently for the majority of a population. 
    However, a number of complementary therapies have demonstrated qualitative clinical evidence that they are helpful to people (stress relief, pain relief, improved sleep, etc) despite not having the science behind *how* they work. It’s so easy to dismiss it all as merely placebo, but the human body is a complex mechanism and a certain combination of complementary and allopathic treatments may be more beneficial than one or the other alone. It’s unfortunate that the behavior of some alternative/complementary therapists and medical doctors have created this “us vs. them” mentality, because there is a place for both as part of an overall approach to health and wellness. If I were to be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, yes, I would undergo medical treatment on the advice of a trusted oncologist. But I would also make sure to incorporate supportive, balancing complementary therapies to help my mood, reduce stress and improve energy levels during a very emotionally and physically trying time. 

    1. There are many complementary therapies that can help people feel more supported, balanced, and help ease the side effects of cancer treatments so they can enjoy improved quality of life.

      Nowhere have I said that these are bad. My oncologists recommended some of them, in fact, and I have found things like yoga, meditation, dietary changes, medical marijuana, and other supportive therapies to be extraordinarily helpful in getting through medical treatment, with the best possible results.

  58. I had an aunt who died a painful and lingering death from stomach cancer 20+ years ago. I don’t recall when she tried laetrile (mentioned here some months back), if it was in the early stages, instead of scientific medicine, or later when things got worse. I suspect it was early, based on my recollections of frustration by other family members. And that’s the tragedy, the selling of false hope, specifically the selling part. Trading on people’s emotions, selling them treatments you know are spurious when they are in a state of despair or otherwise not really thinking clearly. 

    This piece offers the perspective more people need: yes, the treatments are brutal but they’re getting better and they beat the alternative. Anyone who thinks there is a cure somewhere that Big Pharma can’t figure out how to sell underestimates the cleverness of Big Pharma. Conspiracies are just big secrets and and we know how hard those are to keep. The more people involved, the less likely, and when there’s money involved, less likely still…

  59. Wow.  It seems you are not aware of the many many expert cancer doctors from the most reputable hospitals and research centers around the world who have come out on the critical side of our traditional approach to treating cancer, nor are you aware of the studies which supports alternative or complimentary healing approaches.  I do agree that outright quackery 
    is devoid of moral integrity, but I shudder to think what exactly constitutes quakery in your eyes. It seems you give no prudence to any of the 90+ therapies which make up the CAM system.  And finally, sadly you have not been exposed to the proven FACT that consciousness is at the root of all cause and effect.  It’s a law of physics. Study it and you will understand why the CAM practitioners see the “mind body spirit” connection as integral to good health
    and why your thoughts about your cancer are supremely important. 

    1. …sadly you have not been exposed to the proven FACT that consciousness is at the root of all cause and effect. It’s a law of physics.

      I see. So when a stone falls to the ground, it’s not the result of trivialities like “gravity” so much as that little pebble’s personal, heartfelt desire to return to the surface of the Earth. SCIENCE!

      1. Brainspore, there are 90+ CAM therapies that are all proven to make that rock reach the ground.  If you drop a rock, it always reaches the ground; therefore, all forms of CAM work! :))  Sorry, the gravity gotcha is a little worn out, and I couldn’t resist.

        Julie, please re-read the blog post.  There are a lot of takeaway messages, and mine was that people who are very ill are often given bad advice about cures or treatments that are at best well-meaning/useless or at worst sinister/fatal.

        It is an important message for those of us who don’t have cancer to remember when giving advice to someone who may be grasping at any thread of hope no matter how far-fetched it may be.

        I prefer to bring people with cancer a nice casserole and my cat for an hour or two (if they are a cat person).  Studies may show that pets lower blood pressure, etc., but I think having something warm, furry, and purring in your lap and warming cold hands is good enough without needing to be mystical.

        I think Xeni made the same point when she mentioned supportive therapies like nourishing soup and massage.  Those don’t have to be mystical either.

    2. boy that smiley face at the end really sells it.

      BTW, do you have cancer? I’m guessing you don’t.

      I’m not gonna bother taking the bait here, but nowhere have I said that supportive therapies like massage, nutrition, and the like are a bad thing when used in addition to science-tested medical treatments.

  60. Thanks to all of you in this comment thread who have shared your personally supportive words. It makes me feel really good to read them, even if I cannot reply to each of you individually because of lack of energy and time.

    Thanks especially to those of you in this thread who have personal experience with cancer, and those of you who work as medical professionals helping people like me with the disease.

  61. So glad you wrote this. I feel as if our language doesn’t cover the landscape: “natural” seems to mean “non-big-pharma produced” treatments that may or may not have a scientific basis. My bestie since age 15 has been diagnosed with stage four GIST three times since she was 18 (she’s 33 now, I’m 35). We’ve been to every specialist at Dana Farber, MD Anderson, Sloan, etc. that you can imagine, and she’s been on every experimental drug you can think of. One of those drugs literally killed her: one of its known side effects was heart trouble, including heart stoppage, so… She was brought back with paddles and CPR twice in one week. That same drug, however, has been a miracle for countless others. Just how it goes sometimes.

    She has been pharma-drug-free for six years, and her cancer (multiple tumors in her liver, a spot in her hip) has been shrinking, slowly but surely, to the point that some of the smaller mets are gone. Now. She only did this because there were literally no other options. Her cancer wasn’t operable, chemo and radiation don’t work well on her type of cancer, and the drugs had stopped her heart. 

    Since 2006, with the awesome help of a rare awesome onc at Dana Farber and epigenomic research out of Portland State, science is beginning to explain why what she’s doing (basically a super low glycemic diet) works well on certain cancers, including GIST, an intestinal cancer, which in her case HAPPENS to also be non-aggressive and slow. It shows up but, when it does, it stops growing for a while. All cancers are NOT like this. We know my bestie also has two genetic mutations, one of which leads to overproduction of cancer cells. We also are beginning to understand why starving tumors of sugar (which they use to grow), certain compounds (some found in green tea and being used to make drugs now) that prevent angiogenesis (tumors’ ability to expand and feed themselves), and other factors can affect the epigenome, which is susceptible to environmental factors and influences which genes express themselves. While her treatment may be “natural,” then, it does have a strong basis in science that is still growing and influencing drug development. 

    And oh, you’re right: the witch doctors you find when trying to figure this stuff out. 

  62. As someone being investigated for lymphoma, thank you for posting that.  As a psychology graduate I realise that my faith in science will hopefully improve any placebo effect, but it just that.

  63. I posted this link on facebook and ended up getting de-friended by a friend who thought alternative medicine can cure cancer. She said I was arrogant for saying her opinion was nonsense. Is being arrogant the same as being correct?

    1. Rasmike – Your views are presumably being removed because you are the problem, and your ideas kill people, as Xeni pointed out.
      This is not opposing views.  There is scientific evidence that people like you result in people dying faster, or people who would survive die instead.  You’re killing people.

      You’re sincere, but you’re killing people.  We’re being polite, but you’re killing people.  Your killing people is testing our patience.
      Please go away.

    2. So people blogging about their experiences with cancer — and especially their anger at the criminals and morons who promote ‘alternative therapies’ — is obliged to provide people like rasmike with a forum for promoting alternative therapies?
      Way to prove her point, dude.

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