An even more typical than typical “alternative medicine” breast cancer testimonial

I got home from work rather late last night; so for once I’ll spare you my typical Orac-ian level of logorrhea today. Yes, I know how much the ravening hordes of my fans thirst for every bit of wisdom that flows from my keyboard to Seed Magazine’s servers and from there to the world, but fear not. I didn’t say I wouldn’t quench that thirst. I just won’t be taking as long as usual. Maybe a couple of quickies instead of the epic post.

My vastly inflated sense of self-importance, bloated beyond all reasonable sense of scale, aside, if there’s one thing I’ve taken an interest in and written about since the very beginning of this blog, it’s cancer testimonials, specifically “alternative medicine” testimonials that purport to show that this woo or that cured a cancer that is incurable by any treatment available to science- and evidence-based medicine. Often, it turns out that the patient actually used lots of conventional therapy and then turned to woo. In the case of breast cancer, even if the patient did turn to woo right away, a typical story is that the breast tumor was completely excised surgically during a biopsy. Unfortunately, what most people don’t know is that in a large proportion of cases, surgical excision can be curative. Radiation is merely the icing on the cake that decreases the chance of a local recurrence where the tumor was excised, and chemotherapy does the same for the rest of the body, decreasing the chance of a recurrence as metastatic disease. Nothing heals like surgical steel, as they say.

Still, the woo is often strong with breast cancer. Sometimes a patient doesn’t even undergo surgery. Sometimes the “tumor” seemingly disappears. Like this:

I have been fortunate to be able to pass along some of your wisdom to many of my family members. Most notably my mother Maria. Without your insight she might very well not be with us now. She was once told by her doctor that she should go in for a biopsy for a lump in her breast. I persuaded her to wait and I coached her on a daily basis using the knowledge I have gained from reading your books, watching yours and Shelley’s DVD’s, youtube videos, ect. Three months later her doctor could not find the lump in the breast anymore and canceled the planned biopsy!

I have attended Anthony Robbins’ “Unleash the Power Within Weekend” where Tony or one of his facilitators teaches your health approach. That Monday, Joseph McClendon III ( he won the motorcycle on “American Chopper”) talked about how he helped his mother overcome diagnosed cancer, and how she lived many many years beyond what her doctors had told her. I believed him that day and I wished that I could help someone in the same way.

Notice something about this story. There is no diagnosis. The man writing this testimonial assumes that his mother’s “tumor” must be cancer. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but the implication is clear. Unfortunately, there is no tissue diagnosis. Although it’s sometimes possible to be very sure that a breast mass is cancer just by physical examination alone, even in such cases a tissue diagnosis is required. On occasion, for example, I have been wrong about a mass that I was sure just had to be a cancer. In any case, this “tumor” might have been anything. It is true that it might have been cancer, but it’s far more likely that it wasn’t. Palpable breast masses can range from nothing but fibroglandular breast tissue to benign lesions such as fibroadenomas to frank cancers. Again, a tissue diagnosis is absolutely required before one can say that this “tumor” was a cancer that would endanger his mother’s life.

This man assumes that this “tumor” was endangering his mother’s life and that Dr. Young’s pH quackery made it go away and saved her life, but even the most cursory glance at his story makes it obvious to anyone with a little knowledge about breast cancer that no such claim can be made. After all, there are all sorts of masses in the breast that can grow, shrink, or even disappear. I myself have on occasion scheduled women for surgery to biopsy a palpable abnormality and had the surgery somehow be delayed for a month or two–or even three–at which point I could no longer find the mass that I had felt before. It generally happens once every couple of years. Indeed, that’s the very reason that a good breast surgeon always makes sure to examine the patient in the holding area before surgery before taking a woman back to the operating room to biopsy a mass that as felt. It’s a real bummer to take a patient back to the O.R. and be unable to find the mass that you were planning on biopsying. It’s bad form. Most of the time when this happens, it’s usually either a small fibroadenoma or glandular tissue associated with fibrocystic change, which can sometimes form lumps that are definitely concerning.

Another line of evidence is that it’s not uncommon to see benign-appearing masses on mammogram or ultrasound and document their regression in subsequent studies months or even years later. Heck, there is even evidence that as many as 20% of frank breast cancers may regress. Personally, I don’t believe the number is quite that high, for reasons that I explained when discussing the study that suggested a high number of spontaneous regressions, but I do believe that spontaneous regressions occur. They generally have nothing to do with the woo du jour that a woman is trying in order to get rid of them. Again, as with so many things in medicine, well designed clinical trials are required to sort out a treatment effect from the random noise of lesions that grow, remain stable, or regress.

Unfortunately, this is about the most dishonest kind of “alternative” medicine testimonial for cancer because the woman almost certainly didn’t have cancer. Three quarters of such lesions–or even more–are not malignant. Unfortunately, many women don’t realize this and are easily convinced that any lump is cancer even without a tissue diagnosis. Don’t get me wrong. By no means am I suggesting that such lesions do not need to be biopsied. They do. But using such a story as “evidence” that Dr. Young’s pH woo eliminates breast cancer proves nothing at all. I don’t know which possibility is worse: that Dr. Young is so clueless that he doesn’t realize this or so dishonest that he doesn’t care.