A horrifying breast cancer “testimonial” for “holistic” treatment, part 2

(NOTE ADDED 12/7/2010: Kim Tinkham has died of what was almost certainly metastatic breast cancer.)

Three days ago, I decided to take a look at the scientific literature regarding whether any “alternative” therapies do any good for breast cancer. Not surprisingly, I found no evidence that any such therapy did, with the possible exception of melatonin, which there is no reason to label “alternative,” given that it was discovered through science and is being tested using science. At the same time, I’ve been keeping an eye on the usual suspects pushing various forms of woo for breast cancer, mainly because I’m always on the lookout for testimonials to analyze.

A little more than a year ago, I analyzed one such breast cancer testimonial by a woman named Kim Tinkham. Ms. Tinkham is a woman in her early fifties who was most famous for having been on The Oprah Winfrey Show in March 2007 having claimed to have beaten breast cancer using only “alternative” methods while . Of course, I noted that, as of January 2008, Ms. Tinkham had said:

She can still feel the tumor just underneath the surface of her skin, where it will probably remain for a while.

But she knows it’s harmless. Now, it’s simply her badge of honor – the reminder that she, Kim Tinkham, defeated cancer without any surgery, invasive procedures, radiation or chemotherapy.

At the time, apparently her definition of being “cancer free” meant that she had undergone some blood test or other ordered by a particularly dubious “alternative” practitioner named Robert O. Young. We’ve met Young before on this blog multiple times. In essence, he believes that cancer and in essence all disease is caused by acid, how viruses are “molecular acids” and sepsis is supposedly not caused by bacteria, and that the cure for all disease is alkalinization. In other words, Young is a Woomeister Supreme, slinging stuff that shouldn’t sound plausible to anyone who’s taken high school biology. Unfortunately, Ms. Tinkham believes in him totally, which led her to be able to delude herself into believing her cancer was gone, even though the mass was still obviously palpable within her breast.

The other day, Young decided to give us an update on Ms. Tinkham.

It turns out that Tinkham is still alive. In fact, she is writing a book that she is calling Cancer Angel: The Explanation of What Cancer Is, Its Prevention and Cure:

Kim Tinkham was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in February 2007, just two days before her fiftieth birthday. Rather than go the conventional route of mastectomy followed by chemo and/or radiation she chose to seek out an alternative way to heal her body. Her choice to search for an alternative coupled with a late night email landed her as a guest on a very well known female afternoon talk show host in March of 2007, where she stood her ground for her right to choose and shared with the audience that ‘you cannot make a decision based on fear’.

With hundreds of emails from people around the world who watched the show segment applauding her decision and spurring her on she spent the next four months seeking out answers from doctors and practitioners around the world. With her self imposed deadline of October fast approaching and no answer to the question “what causes cancer?” she finally found the research of Dr. Robert O. Young, a microbiologist in California. After communicating with Dr. Young via phone and email she made the decision to follow his protocol and three months later was pronounced cancer free.

Except that we know from her own words that she was not cancer free three months after she discovered Young. She could still feel the lump, and there was no evidence that it was even shrinking. Instead, she persuaded–read: deluded–herself into believing that it could somehow no longer harm her. Let’s take a look at the update according to Dr. Young:

A year prior to my diagnosis I had felt a lump in my breast after a morning shower. I chalked it up to too much caffeine and gave up the coffee for about two weeks and the lump went away. That lump came back a couple more times during the year and disappeared after I changed something I was drinking or eating.

But around Thanksgiving 2006, the lump came back and I didn’t change anything about what I was doing during the holidays. I told myself that I would tackle it after Christmas. The holidays came and went but the lump stayed. When January rolled around, I got so busy that I told myself that I would deal with it later.

This is an incredibly common story among such busy, career women; in fact, it’s pretty common even among women who aren’t busy career women. For one thing, it’s not uncommon for masses to appear to grow and regress as breast tissue changes in density with hormonal fluctuations or in women with fibrocystic changes. A tumor that just reaches the threshold of being palpable can sometimes be easier to feel at some times than others. Also, never underestimate the deadly power of denial. What almost certainly happened is that the tumor was there all along but Tinkham managed to convince herself periodically that it had disappeared. In the meantime, her tumor grew, although one thing we can tell right away from this testimonial is that she is the prototypical case of a woman who, although her tumor was large enough to be stage IIIA, it had grown slowly enough that it hadn’t metastasized over the course of nearly a year and apparently hadn’t grown that much.

Although I’ve emphasized this time and time again over the last four years, one of the most common elements of a breast cancer testimonial is frequently the self-blame. Remember, we’re talking about what is more a religious decision than a scientific one. Consequently, it makes a lot of sense that part of the testimonial involves being lost and confused. Then, often the person giving the testimonial “confesses,” after which redemption is possible:

Somewhere inside me I knew that I had brought this ‘cancer’ on myself. I had always believed that the human body was designed to heal itself if given the right tools. I just hadn’t given it the right tools. I had to find what the right tools were. My path to self healing landed me on the Oprah Winfrey show in a short time in March of 2007. The Oprah show was a springboard for me and helped me reach doctors and researchers that I may not have been able to reach on my own.

Next comes the search for enlightenment:

I worked with massage therapists, reflexologists, nutritionists and energy healers. I ordered crystals to take away negative energy and balance my chakras. I learned to reinvent myself. During all this, I continued to get thermoscans that measured the heat in my body. I was seeing a slight decrease in heat (my research had taught me that cancer emits heat), but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. I talked to alternative researchers from all over the world regarding cancer. Nothing opens the door faster than “I was on the Oprah Show”. There was only one person out of the 30 or more that I called who did not take or return my call. They all shared their findings with me and wished me luck.

She was also tempted by Satan in the form of physicians who only had her best interests at heart but whom she viewed as an impediment trying to keep her from salvation, as well as her own self-doubt:

I struggled with phone calls from doctors urging me to do something before it was too late. I struggled with my own conscience late at night when I lay in bed wondering if my own self confidence was going to be the death of me. But most of all I struggled with the questions of friends and family when they asked how I was feeling, am I keeping track of my progress, do I have a plan?

And, finally, salvation.

Ms. Tinkham finds her Savior, Dr. Young, who tells her what she wants to hear, namely that he knows what caused her cancer, that it was indeed her lifestyle choices to consume too much “acid,” and that the cure is a simple matter. She has control of her life again; her fall was her fault, and her salvation is similarly her initiative. It’s all very much like The Secret. She believes she brought her cancer on herself through her choices and thoughts, and, by thinking happy thoughts and following Robert Young’s woo, she just as fervently believes that she’s cured it.

As I pointed out before, breast cancer is a very heterogeneous disease with a highly variable prognosis. Remember the survival curve that I reprinted for women with untreated breast cancer. It’s very applicable to Kim Tinkham in that, like the women in the 1800s and early 1900s, she detected her cancer by palpation, not mammography. The median survival for the series was 2.7 years, which means that half of the women survived 2.7 years or longer. In fact, 18% of such women survived five years, and 3.6% survived 10 years or more. That’s why single testimonials for breast cancer “cures” can’t really tell us much. That’s why randomized clinical trials with large numbers of subjects are required to evaluate new therapeutic modalities for breast cancer.

Of course, I don’t wish Ms. Tinkham anything but the best. However, I know that the path she is on is virtually guaranteed to lead to the progression of her cancer, if it hasn’t already. Indeed, Dr. Young has led her astray. For one thing, not only is he treating her based on a false understanding of what cancer is, how it develops, and how it grows. Cancer is not a “poisonous acid liquid,” as Young claims it is, and the tumor is not the “body’s protective mechanism to encapsulate ‘spoiled’ or ‘poisoned’ cells from excess acid,” but that’s the basis of Young’s treatment. It’s utter quackery of the sort that routinely enrages me, and Ms. Tinkham is simply very fortunate that she appears to have the sort of tumor that is not extremely aggressive.

Unfortunately, sometimes the less aggressive tumors can result in some of the most horrific end results. One of the worst clinical problems in breast cancer is what’s known as the cuirasse tumor in a woman with no sign of metastases elsewhere in the body. Such chest wall invasion of tumors can result in a bleeding, stinking, gooey mess that slowly eats away the skin and soft tissue of the breast and chest wall. Surgery doesn’t usually control it for long, although chemotherapy and radiation sometimes can, as can tamoxifen if the tumor is strongly estrogen-receptor positive. But without a combined multimodality approach involving chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, surgery, and radiation therapy, cure is virtually impossible, and women like Ms. Tinkham can end up dying in horrible pain like Michaela Jakubczyk-Eckert.

I would spare her that fate if I could. If I can’t, then I would do what I can to spare other women who might be tempted by her chipper demeanor and book to follow her path.