Natural Cancer Treatments That Work: A wretched hive of scum and quackery

Back in the 1990s when I first dipped my toe into the pool that was Usenet, that massive, wild, and untamed frontier where most online discussion occurred before the rise of the web and later the blogosphere, I was truly a naif. I had no idea–no inkling–of the depths of quackery to which people would sink. If Usenet was my bootcamp that opened my eyes to the seemingly endless varieties of quackery and, in particular, the flavor of quackery that represents anti-vaccine lunacy and “biomedical treatments” for autism, then my graduate education in the battle for science-based medicine began in earnest when I first dove headfirst into the deep end of the woo pool as a blogger five and a half years ago. Today, I look back at about a decade subjecting myself to the various forms of medical irrationality out there, and I think I’ve seen it all. Although it seems to be happening less often than it did, the Internet disabuses me of that illusion by subjecting me to some new and bizarre form of woo that I’ve never seen before.

Because I’m a cancer surgeon and researcher, of all the quackery that’s out there, there is one form of quackery that irritates me more than any other, and that’s cancer quackery. The reason is that quackery lures cancer patients away from therapy, endangering their lives. Even for patients who are not curable with conventional science-based medicine, quackery can lead them to forego effective palliative therapy. And, make no mistake about it, death from cancer can be horrible and painful. Cancer quacks all too often rob cancer patients of quality of life in their remaining time on earth by subjecting them to ineffective therapies, some of which are not innocuous. For example, Nicholas Gonzalez’s treatment for cancer involves coffee enemas and downing as many as 150 supplement pills per day. Even though his “therapy” is worse than useless for pancreatic cancer, Gonzalez still promotes it, and desperate patients are still lured to their doom by its siren song while useful idiots like Suzanne Somers provide credulous books with entire chapters devoted to claiming that Gonzalez’s woo works.

You can imagine, then, just how I reacted when I came across a free online book entitled Natural Cancer Treatments That Work. Seldom have I seen such a comprehensively wretched hive of scum and quackery with respect to cancer treatments. Weighing in at 420 pages including index and dubious references, so comprehensive is the listing and dense the quackery content per page that I could easily write a dozen of my usual logorrheically sarcastic pontifications and still not cover the full depths of the quackery contained within this e-book. Truly, this encyclopedia of cancer quackery is what a fighter pilot would call a “target rich environment.” I don’t know how much I’ll write about individual sections of this book, but perhaps I’ll keep the PDF containing the book on my computer and return to it whenever I’m short on blogging topics. Natural Cancer Treatments That Work is truly a skeptical blogger’s friend, at least in terms of supplying copious quantities of blogging material.

Not surprisingly, the book starts with the classical quack Miranda warning, you know, the one where the quack writing a book, website, or ad states something along the lines of “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” Natural Cancer Treatments, however, goes beyond the quack Miranda and begins with two quotes. The first is from Paracelsus:

It should be forbidden and severely punished to remove cancer by cutting, burning, cautery, and other fiendish tortures. It is from nature that the disease comes, and from nature comes the cure, not from physicians.

Because we should listen to what a man who was born over 500 years ago has to say about the treatment of cancer. 500 years ago, even the most learned men of science had no idea what cancer does and no effective treatments for cancer other than surgical excision. Given that there was no truly effective anesthesia and no knowledge of antisepsis or antibiotics back then, surgical excision was as likely to kill a patient as anything else, which is why it’s not surprising that someone like Paracelsus might not be too enamored of the results of surgery for practically anything. Next up is this quote:

As if that weren’t bad enough, Natural Treatments quotes Hulda Clark. Yes, that Hulda Clark and that book of hers, The Cure for All Advanced Cancers. Of course, since Hulda Clark died of cancer, she clearly overestimated her capabilities to cure cancer. Still, quacks still think that Hulda Clark could cure cancer (or at least lie about her abilities and conveniently ignore how she shuffled off this mortal coil).

The introduction of the book goes even further, expanding upon the quack Miranda:

This book is a comprehensive compilation of over 350 natural and alternative cancer treatments. It is a result of extensive research of the methods cancer victors have used to make themselves cancer free. Read their stories in I Beat Cancer! which is a directory of over 2,000 people who beat their cancer using the treatments described in this e-book.

The objectives of the book are to:

  • Encourage you to be open-minded and seek ALL the information about your choices of treatments
  • Be a starting point for your discussions with your doctor or with the qualified, licensed physicians who use these treatments in their practices, or your chosen natural therapist. Please do not delay in consulting a licensed physician for an opinion if you suspect you have cancer.
  • Be a starting point for your own research so you can make the best-informed decisions about your treatment plan.

Interesting. The author of this book, Karen Beattie, tells you to seek “all” the information about treatment choices and use them as a “starting point for discussions with your doctor.” Then Beattie writes:

The consensus of the majority of alternative cancer therapists is that, the chance of full recovery using alternative therapies is almost 100%. with a newly diagnosed condition of early cancer, before any traumatic or toxic treatments have been received.

Unfortunately, by the time most patients consider alternative treatments, they have already undergone other treatments.

So what Beattie’s saying (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) is to go to your doctor (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) and listen what he or she has to say–and then reject it. The logic is inescapable. After all, these quacks can only cure you of your cancer if you haven’t already been “poisoned” or “traumatized” by conventional medical and surgical therapy. It’s nearly the perfect “out,” because few are the patients who don’t undergo at least some conventional treatment before trying “alternatives,” even if it’s only a biopsy or surgical excision. Of course, even among those who somehow manage not to undergo even a little bit of “conventional” cancer treatment before choosing woo, those who don’t survive generally die in obscurity. They’re never heard from once they realize they’ve been had and that they aren’t going to survive their mistake. Only those who are lucky to have survived much longer than expected (i.e., “outliers”) hang around long enough to become testimonials to sell the quack nostrums they use.

For purposes of this initial post, I don’t know that it would be useful to go into much detail about any one treatment listed within this book of cancer quackery. Perhaps in the future I can do that for selected topics. There’s a lot in the book and on the apparently now defunct website for the book, including claims that cancer is “easily curable,” backed by–what else?–a whole bevy of testimonials. What I find more interesting for the purpose of an overview or introductory post is the rationale for eschewing conventional therapy and choosing “alternatives.” Not surprisingly, Beattie starts right off with a massive strawman:

Cancer is a biologic puzzle. There is no unanimous agreement on what makes cells grow abnormally, in endless, uncontrolled multiplication. There could be many different valid ways to treat cancer.

To conventional physicians, cancer is a localized disease, to be treated in a localized manner. By cutting out the tumor, irradiating it, or flooding the body with toxic (and often carcinogenic) drugs, the conventional physician hopes to destroy the tumor and thus save the patient. But all too often, the cancer is still present and has metastasized, or re-occurs.

In contrast, the alternative physician regards cancer as a systemic disease, one that involves the whole body. In this view, the tumor is merely a symptom and the therapy aims to correct the root causes.

The first paragraph isn’t so bad. True, it exaggerates the lack of understanding science has regarding what causes cancer cells to proliferate uncontrollably. There actually is a fairly broad consensus over general mechanisms that lead to uncontrolled proliferation. True, we don’t understand the biological changes that lead to cancer well enough to produce therapies that can cure cancer 100% of the time, but it’s deceptive to say that there is “no unanimous” agreement over what causes cancer cells to proliferate. Agreement may not be 100% unanimous (after all, Peter Duesberg wouldn’t agree with the current paradigm), but it is broad and it is deep. Scientists are not The Borg (at least not most of the time); they don’t march in lockstep. Not that that matters to Beattie. The only thing she gets right is that there are many valid ways to treat cancer, but that’s a trivial observation, because cancer is not a single disease. It’s many diseases, each with its own set of treatments sufficiently supported by science to be considered standard of care. Saying that there are “many different valid ways” to treat cancer is akin to saying there are many different valid ways to treat disease. It’s so trivial it’s meaningless.

Beattie’s claim that “conventional physicians” believe that cancer is a localized disease to be treated in a localized fashion is, at least as a generalization, the purest bullshit. There. I said it. There’s really no other way to say it. Apologies to those with sensitive ears. Again, cancer is not just one disease. “Conventional” physicians thus don’t treat it as one disease. Whether a cancer is viewed as a local or systemic disease depends on which specific cancer is being considered. Leukemias, for instance, are almost always systemic. Ditto lymphomas. In contrast, other cancers, such as breast, prostate, or colon cancer, tend to be localized, at least when caught early.

But even in these cases Beattie is exaggerating. For example, it’s been debated since at least the 1980s whether breast cancer, even early stage small breast cancer, is a local disease or a systemic disease. The model championed by Dr. William Halsted in the late 1800s was that breast cancer was a local disease that spread in a very predictable fashion to the local lymph nodes and then to the rest of the body. Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Bernard Fisher proposed that even small breast cancers represented systemic disease and that the cancers could spread unpredictably. As a result, more and more chemotherapy was advocated for earlier and earlier stage cancer. Of late, we seem to be modulating our views back towards a compromise between the Halstedian and Fisher view of breast cancer. We’re coming to understand that there is a continuum between the two views. Thus, Beattie is either deluded or lying when she asserts that “conventional” physicians view cancer strictly as a “localized” disease.

Moron.

It really should also be pointed out here that when Beattie says that an “alternative physician” regards cancer as a “systemic disease,” she doesn’t mean “systemic” disease the same way a science-based oncologist does. Note how she says that the tumor is “merely a symptom” and that therapy “aims to correct the root causes.” What she appears to mean by this is the same sort of claptrap that is the German New Medicine, which claims that the tumor is a defense mechanism of the body to protect itself from some sort of undefined “psychic trauma.” Either that, or it’s a manifestation of “too much acid,” which is what the acid-base quack Robert O. Young, who claims that tumors are a defense mechanism of the body to wall off cells “spoiled by acid.”

“Systemic.” You keep using that word. I think it does not mean what you think it means.

Perhaps the most unintentionally hilarious part of Beattie’s introduction is her attack on the dreaded “quackbusters,” in whose company no doubt she would include me:

The research team at Phi Natural Health International found the warmings of the Quackbusters very helpful in the research for this e-book – the more agitated and vociferous they were about particular treatments or individuals, the team knew that it was on to something that has proved very effective!

[…]

Many perceive a very organized worldwide movement to eliminate alternative remedies in favor of pharmaceutical drugs.

One wonders who these “many” are, although I’m sure Bill Maher is among their number. Of course, that’s how I judge the strength of a scientific consensus, by how upset scientists get when it is challenged.

Then there’s this:

This e-book is not meant to provide medical advice. The only advice we wish to give you is this: do not surrender your independent thinking. Reason things out, and make your own decisions. Network with other patients. Consult with researchers and innovative doctors. Search out different opinions. Do not let arrogance, based on fancy titles and institutional authority dictate your most important decisions.

Instead, let the arrogance based on ignorance and fantastical notions of how the body works and what causes cancer dictate your most important decisions.

In the end, I have to give Beattie some props. I must say that I can’t recall having seen such a lengthy and comprehensive list of harmful cancer quackery that should be avoided. In that, Beattie has done a service. If you see a cancer treatment that is in Natural Therapies, you can, as a rule of thumb, safely assume that it is quackery and avoid it like the plague. Indeed, were it not that people predisposed to woo wouldn’t listen to me when I say this, the simplest and most rapid way to counter this sort nonsense would be to tell my readers to read Natural Treatments That Work and then stay away from every single one of the “cures” listed in this fetid swamp of quackery masquerading as a book.

Unfortunately, the simple way probably won’t work. I’ll probably have to wade in deeper.