Abusing celebrities with cancer in order to promote quackery

I find it hard to believe that we’re already two weeks into 2009. The older I get and the longer I’ve been blogging, it seems, the faster time files. It’s gotten so bad that it’s not at all infrequent that I remember a post that I’ve written, go searching for it, and end up amazed that it’s several months or even a couple of years old. In any case, 2009 has gotten off to a pretty decent start, with posts about HIV/AIDS denialism, the probable selection of Dr. Sanjay Gupta as Surgeon General, a followup on Tong Ren, Holocaust denial, and the “bait and switch” of Deepak Chopra and “alternative” medicine. There have been posts about vaccines, and several other subjects already. So what am I missing?

Oh, yeah. I haven’t had any “fun” yet with everybody’s favorite loony woo-meister. Happy New Year, Mike Adams.

I realize that NaturalNews.com is what we in the skeptic biz call a “target-rich” environment. Indeed, it’s hard to select one post that’s crazier than any of the others. Usually, for a NaturalNews.com article to rise (or, more frequently, fall) to the level that I feel obliged to apply a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence to it, it has to have that proper level of looniness, pseudoscience, or sheer despicability. Usually the articles I target due to their despicable nature are by Mike Adams himself, articles such as the one where he ghoulishly used the corpse of Tony Snow as an excuse to attack conventional medicine, likening Snow to “Hitler’s press secretary,” or the one where he described Christina Applegate’s decision to undergo bilateral prophylactic mastectomy as maiming and used it as an excuse to attack the “breast cancer industry.” Now, showing once again that there’s no celebrity with cancer that Mike Adams or one of his surrogates won’t try to use and abuse to his advantage, NaturalNews.com (formerly NewsTarget.com) “takes aim” at Patrick Swayze.

Let’s back up a minute. Patrick Swayze was a huge star back in the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps best known for his roles in popular movies, such as Dirty Dancing and Ghost. More recently, his star had faded, and, unfortunately, a little less than one year ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As a cancer surgeon, I found the exact facts of his case and his clinical course a bit hard to come by from reading various web articles, most of which were fairly vague and some of which were contradictory, but apparently the tumor had spread to his liver by March, making his cancer stage IV pancreatic cancer.

Now there’s one thing about pancreatic cancer you need to know if you don’t already, and that’s that it’s that it’s one of the most deadly of cancers. Even when it’s discovered early enough so that it is surgically resectable with completely negative margins, the five year survival, even in the best centers, is generally less than around 20-25%, occasionally slightly better. Patients who are candidates for an attempt at a curative resection are a minority, however, generally less than 10% of cases that present. The vast majority of patients present with either locally advanced disease that cannot be resected surgically or metastatic disease to other organs, usually the liver. In such cases, the median survival is usually less than six months, and chemotherapy and radiation produce only at best modest improvements in those dismal numbers. True, the one year survival rate for advanced pancreatic cancer can be in the 20-30% range with aggressive therapy with newer agents, but that’s hardly reassuring to most patients. After all, how would you like to be told that you will probably only live three to six months, and that there is around a 70-80% chance that you will be dead before one year has passed? In any case, that Swayze apparently never underwent an attempt at surgical resection, which is the only modality that has even a chance of resulting in long term survival, tells us that his cancer was almost certainly not surgically resectable at the time of diagnosis, which is not surprising given the symptoms of severe weight loss and nausea that he said he had for at least a couple of months prior to that. Regardless, Swayze is still alive nearly a year after his diagnosis, which remains fairly remarkable, even though such survival in the face of pancreatic cancer is far from unheard of.

Last week, Swayze did something that pissed the woo-ists off. He gave an interview to Barbara Walters. No, giving an interview to Barbara Walters is not what pissed the woo-ists off. What pissed the woo-ists off was what he said in that interview with Barbara Walters, which was relayed to me by blog bud PalMD, as well as Majikthise. This is what Swayze said:

If anybody had that cure out there, like so many people swear they do, you’d be two things. You’d be very rich, and you’d be very famous. Otherwise, shut up.

He’s also fairly realistic about his chances:

“Five years is pretty wishful thinking,” the ‘Dirty Dancing’ star told Walters, who had been pressing the heavy question. “Two years seems likely if you’re going to believe statistics.”

Actually, at the time of his original diagnosis, two years would have seemed very unlikely. Even now, his chance of surviving two more years appears iffy at best, and the odds against his surviving five years seem incredibly high, although rare patients with metastatic pancreatic cancer do survive that long. (It’s at the very most 2%, but it’s not zero.) Given how well he’s done this far and how well he’s apparently responded to aggressive experimental chemotherapy, though, it’s clear that Swayze is fortunate enough to fall into a subgroup of patients with somewhat less viciously aggressive biology than the usual run-of-the-mill pancreatic cancer exhibits. That’s great for him, but if you watch all the parts of his interview in the link above it’s clear that Swayze is suffering. He describes significant pain and having to “empty out his toxins” before he can go to work, after which he speaks of jaundice.

That latter description suggests to me that he very well may have a percutaneous drain in his liver to drain into a plastic bag the bile that backs up from the obstruction of the common bile duct that pancreatic cancer often causes and to palliate the jaundice caused by such an obstruction. The procedure, percutaneous cholangiography (PTC) with drainage is a very common palliative procedure to relieve jaundice, the itching from which can be unbearable if the bilirubin level gets too high. Perhaps Swayze meant that he had to empty his bag. He also spoke of difficulty with what sounds like a gastric outlet obstruction, where he has difficulty getting his food to leave his stomach due to obstruction by his tumor. Whatever he meant, it is clear that he is nowhere near symptom-free. He also stated that he refused to take pain medication while he was working. While I can admire the grit involved in making that decision, I know from my training and practice when I used to see pancreatic cancer patients that the pain from pancreatic cancer can be unrelenting, a “boring” pain that goes straight to the back. I have to wonder if Swayze underwent any palliative nerve blocking procedures, such as celiac nerve ablation with alcohol, where under CT guidance ethanol is injected into the nerves of the celiac plexus. It’s a highly effective means of palliating pancreatic cancer pain.

Whatever the specifics of Swayze’s cancer, Mike Adams (“Health Ranger”) and his band of intrepidly obtuse woo-meisters just can’t stand to see someone accept the validity of science-based medicine and publicly disparage people who claim cancer cures without any evidence–in other words, people like Mike Adams, who often makes near miraculous claims for various “alternative” medicine modalities. Rubbing salt in the wound to the cancer quacks’ pride is the fact that in this case the person who is disparaging them is someone whose life science- and evidence-based medicine cannot save. Patrick Swayze may be dying of pancreatic cancer, but even the desperation from his dire situation has not led him to embrace the quackery that Mike Adams lays down day in and day out on his website and podcast. Swayze realizes–correctly–that, if Adams’ heros could do what he claims they can do, it couldn’t be kept secret and the person(s) who discovered such cancer “cures” would be rich.

That clear-headed common sense cannot be tolerated by Mike Adams, though; so he sent one of his minions to slime Patrick Swayze, a guy named Tony Isaacs, who wrote a lovely little hit piece entitled Patrick Swayze’s Misplaced Faith in Mainstream Medicine and crossposted it to his own website. The sliming begins:

Millions of people tuned in to watch the Barbara Walter’s interview with Patrick Swayze which centered on his fight against pancreatic cancer. It was wonderful to see Swayze so fired up and hopeful and to his credit, he has refused to accept his cancer as a death sentence and is fighting it with mind, body and soul. To the dismay of those of us in natural health, Swayze has also placed his faith and life in the hands of mainstream medicine.

In the interview, Swayze indicated that he does not want any advice from others on alternative treatments. According to Swayze, he has taken some “specific immune system Chinese herbs,” but says he hasn’t tried many alternative therapies because he learned that if “you feed your body, you feed the insatiable voracious appetite of the cancer.”

The mainstream medicine group that has failed to conquer cancer for half a century has clearly gotten into Swayze’s head. These are the same MD’s and oncologist who will more often than not advise a person to not take antioxidants when having chemo, though there have been no reliable studies to support such advice and many which dispute it.

He’s just pissy because a recent study suggested that vitamin C could interfere with chemotherapy. In fact, the evidence is conflicting about whether antioxidants potentiate or interfere with the effects of chemotherapy on cancer cells. They probably do both, with the predominant effect depending on the chemotherapeutic agent, the dose, and the specific tumor. More importantly, Isaacs is just annoyed that, even facing death, Swayze recognizes snake oil when he sees it and refuses to embrace it, no matter how desperate he is to save his life. So what does Isaacs do? He starts throwing clichés around:

The mainstream chemo theory is to weaken and destroy the cancer cells with chemical poison which also weakens and destroys the rest of the body’s cells and organs in the often misplaced hope that the symptoms of cancer (tumors and cancer cell masses) will somehow be eliminated before the treatment itself kills the patient. It is a desperate gamble that fails more often than not. Even when most or all of the symptoms are eliminated by chemo (or radiation), the damage to the body’s natural immune system, major organs and overall health is so great that the way is paved for the return and unabated growth of cancer in a body whose natural defenses have been rendered virtually useless.

Well, yes and no. Yes, differential toxicity towards cancer cells compared to normal cells is how chemotherapy works. However, the immune system is far more resiliant than woo-meisters like Isaacs can conceive. They seem to think that the immune system can’t ever recover from the insult of chemotherapy. It can. It is also true that chemotherapy can increase the risk of secondary malignancies, as can radiation. However, the benefits of chemotherapy and radiation usually outweigh the risks of secondary malignancies. Indeed, if a cancer patient lives long enough to get a secondary malignancy, usually many years, isn’t that better than dying within months of the first cancer? Moreover, it’s not as though “conventional” doctors are not aware of this problem and researchers aren’t trying to find treatments that either don’t produce this complication or have a lower chance of producing it.

Isaacs, not surprisingly, doesn’t waste an opportunity to reiterate the grim survival statistics for pancreatic cancer:

When it comes to mainstream treatment of pancreatic cancer, five year survival rates overall are an abysmal 4.6%. In cases where cancer has spread to any great extent, those rates drop to 1.8%. Five year survival actually due to chemo: Zero percent.

Of course, the reason that the five year survival rate due to chemotherapy is zero is because so few live five years that describing “five year survival” rates for metastatic pancreatic cancer is meaningless. Nearly everyone’s dead by five years, regardless of treatment. One year survival rates are a far more meaningful measure, unfortunately. But what is Isaacs’ “alternative”? A whole lot of “detox” woo and this:

While addressing the underlying causes of cancer is the ultimate key to long term cancer survival, one cannot ignore the symptoms of cancer which may well kill you in the short term before you are able to restore you body and immune system to optimum health. Here too, the right herbs and supplements can play a vital role in attacking tumors and cancer cells to arrest their growth and eliminate them to give the body the time it often needs to become restored and keep cancer at bay in the future. Though pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive and difficult cancer to beat, two natural items featured here at Natural News have been particularly successful against pancreatic cancer: oleander and black cumin seed oil.

His evidence? In vitro cell culture studies looking at extracts from oleander and black cumin seed oil. That’s all very well and good. Testing compounds on cells in a culture dish is how most cancer chemotherapy is first studied. Unfortunately, cell culture results often don’t translate into results in actual living, breathing human beings; in fact, one of the favorite sayings around here is that you can kill cancer cells in a dish with bleach, but that does not mean that intravenous or oral intake of bleach would be an effective anticancer therapy. Would that it weren’t so! Cancer research would be so much easier if it were possible to identify with a high degree of certainty promising treatments just by testing them on cancer cells in a culture dish! We could just test chemnicals and various plant extracts on whatever tumors we think they might be effective against, and–voilà!–instant cancer cures! Wouldn’t it be great? In any case, that’s the fantasy world that woo-meisters like Isaacs inhabit. Personally, I’d be a happier camper if their world were the real world (at least with respect to identifying new cancer therapies), no matter how much Isaacs or even Mike Adams himself won’t believe me.

No screed like Isaacs’ would be complete without an rant against “conventional” medicine and Isaacs doesn’t disappoint:

Despite a decades long continual stream of pronouncements about annual progress and new cures and treatments being just around the corner, more people continue to contract and die from cancer every year. Not coincidentally, more money is spent on cancer treatments each year as well. Cancer is an almost $400 Billion a year industry. The only way it can maintain and increase it’s profits is by NOT finding a cure. The legacy of not finding a cure and putting profits before healing can be found in our nation’s graveyards, where millions of bodies lie of those who were taken from their friends and families and sent to early graves before their time.

Here we go again with the same old crap about oncologists “not wanting to find a cure.” Bullshit. If an oncologist or a surgeon were to find a cure for pancreatic cancer, he or she would instantly become the most famous physician of the age and fabulously wealthy–exactly as Patrick Swayze himself said! Moreover, Isaacs, idiot that he is, forgets that cancer is such a common scourge of humanity that virtually every oncologist and cancer researcher has known, knows, or will at some point in the future know a loved one in his or her family or friends with a fatal cancer. It’s virtually inevitable. I myself have had three relatives within the last three years who had fatal cancers. Two of them are dead, and one of them is in hospice right now. My best friend’s mother died of metastatic breast cancer when he was in college, and his father currently has colon cancer metastatic to the liver. (By the way, his colon cancer is for the moment being very well controlled with therapies developed by those evil drug companies that Isaacs, Adams, and their fellow knuckleheads, leading to him surviving far longer than such a patient could have expected to survive ten or twenty years ago and living a his relatively normal, golf-playing retirement life). Does Isaacs honestly think I care where a cure for a cancer comes from or that I would fail to take advantage of one if I saw it just because it came from “alternative” medicine? If he does, he’s an even bigger science moron than his article makes him out to be. Personally, I wouldn’t care if Deepak Chopra himself–or even Mike Adams himself–came up with the cure if the evidence showed that it was miraculously effective.

There’s the rub, of course. “Alties” just can’t provide the evidence to back up their extravagant claims.

One thing that’s for sure, though. The next time there’s a celebrity dying of cancer like Patrick Swayze, Mike Adams or one of his crew will be there to take advantage of his or her suffering to try to sell quackery. Because their quackery is either ineffective or unproven, they can’t make a positive argument for it. All they can do is to try to deceive people with the implication that, because “conventional” medicine couldn’t save Patrick Swayze or other celebrities, that their quackery can. When Swayze dies, look for a post on NaturalNews.com expressing all sorts of mock sorrow that Swayze didn’t see the value of “alternative” therapy and regret that he “could have been saved” if he had just listened to proponents of “natural cancer therapies,” all accompanied by a rant against the government, the “cancer industry, and big pharma. If Adams or his surrogate is in really good form, you’ll see all sorts of Godwin-worthy Nazi analogies thrown about at the dreaded “cancer industry.”

I don’t have to be a psychic to make this prediction.