A horrifying breast cancer “testimonial” for “holistic” treatment, finale

(NOTE: The videos of Robert O. Young’s interview with Kim Tinkham have been removed, as I predicted in this post that they would be. Fortunately, I downloaded copies before he managed to do that. Part 6 appears to be still there–for now.)

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

I hate stories like this. I really do. I hate them with a burning passion that makes it hard for me to see straight when I first find out about them. They make me want to grab a shotgun and go looking for the quack responsible. It’s a good thing I’ve never by any means a violent person and don’t think I could ever do such a thing. Besides, against quacks my blog is my shotgun, and words are my buckshot, a particularly apt metaphor given my tendency towards logorrhea.

In fact, you might even say that stories like the one I’m about to discuss are a major part of the reason why I do what I do, both here and elsewhere. They’re a major part of the reason why I’ve recently branched out into public speaking, something that used to terrify me beyond belief but that lately I’ve become at least competent at–sometimes even not bad at all. Sadly, the story I’m about to tell is one I’ve told before, most recently at the Lorne Trottier Science Symposium, where I gave a talk on cancer cure “testimonials,” although at the time I gave the talk the story’s outcome, although predictable, was not yet known.

Now it is.

The woman to whom I refer is named Kim Tinkham, who was diagnosed with breast cancer over three and a half years ago. Regular readers may recall that Kim Tinkham achieved fame not long after that when she was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show in an episode about The Secret. I don’t want to discuss the utter nonsense that is The Secret in too much detail here. However, for those unfamiliar with this particular bit of New Age woo, it’s important to know that The Secret’s “Law of Attraction” takes the germ of a reasonable idea (namely that one’s attitudes and wishes can influence whether one gets what one wants in life, something that’s been known for millennia and is so obvious that most people know it intuitively) and goes off the deep end of woo by proclaiming that, in essence, you can get anything you want by wanting it badly enough and thinking positive thoughts, thus “attracting” it to you. Basically “The Secret” is that you have the power to “attract” virtually any good to yourself that your heart desires by thinking happy thoughts (hence “the law of attraction,” which, according to Secret adherents always works).

It’s an idea that resonates in so much of “alternative medicine,” such as German New Medicine or Biologie Totale, both ideologies that claim that cancer is due to hidden “inner conflicts” that must be recognized and overcome before cacner can be cured. Of course, the implication of “Secret” thinking is that if bad things happen to you it must be your fault for not wanting it bad enough or thinking happy enough thoughts, an idea that any Holocaust survivor would find incredibly offensive. In much of “alternative medicine,” though, there is indeed an undercurrent, either implied or explicitly stated that, if you don’t get what you want, it’s your fault. Indeed, a frequent excuse for failure in alternative medicine is that the patient either didn’t follow the regimen closely enough or didn’t want it badly enough.

Basically, The Secret is what inspired Kim Tinkham to eschew all conventional therapy for her breast cancer and pursue “alternative” therapies, which is what she has done since 2007. For those of you who want to review it, here I will note that I’ve discussed her case in considerable detail three posts:

This will be part 4, and part 4 almsot certainly be the last part. This weekend, I learned that Kim Tinkham’s cancer has recurred and that she is dying. On Saturday, a reader of my other blog sent me an e-mail that informed me:

Our dear friend, Kim Tinkham, has been diagnosed with cancer. Kim’s friends and family have established a benefit account at Citibank to assist the Tinkhams with expenses during this difficult time.

The accompanying e-mail referred me to a website called Caring for Kim, which led me to related Twitter and Facebook pages. In addition, on the FaceBook page, there was a flyer:

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I can’t tell you how much this depressed me. Granted, neither the website, the Twitter feed, nor the Facebook page confirmed the details of the story told by the person who e-mailed me. However, the nature of the comments on Facebook page did strongly suggest to me that it is true, as there are a number of supportive posts offering prayers of support and urging Tinkham to “keep up the fight” and be hopeful. At the very least, the Facebook page strongly suggested that something is very, very wrong with Tinkham’s health and that it has to do with her cancer coming back. Over the weekend, I have since confirmed, to the best of my ability, that the story related to me by my reader appears to be true. Kim Tinkham is dying of cancer. Most likely what has happened is that, after nearly four years of quack treatments, Tinkham’s breast cancer finally metastasized to what are, let’s face it, the most common sites to which breast cancer metastasizes, bone, liver, and lung. The reports I’ve read suggest that Tinkham is not expected to see 2011.

And so it goes. Another quack claims another victim.

Unfortunately, fleeing conventional therapy after her diagnosis, inspired by The Secret, Tinkham found one Robert O. Young. I’ve discussed this particular “practitioner” here, at TAM7, and at the Trottier Symposium. Young is a proponent of the pseudoscientific idea that essentially all disease is due to “excess acidity” and can therefore be treated with alkalinization. In essence, “Dr.” Young peddles acid-base pseudoscience and the belief that cancer is a “liquid.” One reason that women with breast cancer who decide to opt for “alternative treatment” come to believe that their treatment cured them is because they have had a biopsy that completely excised the tumor. Remember, radiation and chemotherapy only decrease the chance of the tumor recurring after lumpectomy; the lumpectomy itself cures cancer in a significant proportion of cases. However, Tinkham did not undergo an exicisonal biopsy or lumpectomy, only Young’s unscientific and useless treatments. So, after “hyperalkalinizing” her body by changing her diet radically and imbibing all sorts of supplements, did Tinkham’s tumor shrink radically?

No. At no time did I ever hear any claim or evidence that Tinkham’s tumor shrank.

Nonetheless, a testimony to the biological variability of breast cancer in terms of aggressiveness, Tinkham did do well for well over three years. Indeed, as recently as June, which was the last time I wrote about her, Kim Tinkham appeared hale and hearty in an interview on YouTube with the very quack who had been treating her:

I discussed these videos in detail in part 3 of my series on Ms. Tinkham’s testimonial. Part of that post that I consider to be worth repeating, now that we know the outcome of Tinkham’s cancer, is this:

In other words, quacks are all too often always in error, biologically speaking, but never in doubt. In their arrogance of ignorance, they exude the confidence that patients like Kim Tinkham seek and flock to answers that are simple, neat, and completely wrong.

Quacks like Robert O. Young.

In fact, Kim Tinkham made it explicit by saying that Young and his wife had told her what causes cancer by saying “there is no such thing as cancer.” Again, remember that Young thinks that cancer is the body’s reaction to cells “poisoned” by too much acid, and he really does say that there is no such thing as cancer. He even goes on and on about how acid being “deposited into the fatty tissues” and thereby causing cancer. From a scientific standpoint, it’s a load of rubbish, pure pseudoscience without any good scientific evidence to back it up. But Young can assert his nonsense about tissue being due to acid “spoiling” tissues with utter sincerity. He looks completely convincing–if you don’t know anything about cancer biology, and most people don’t know much, if anything, about cancer biology. Give him a woman who is afraid, who wants concrete answers, and who has demonstrated that she is fairly clueless about breast cancer, and he can convince her that he has the answer and can cure her. The reason, it appears to me, is that Tinkham (and women like her) just want to believe that someone knows what’s wrong with them and how to fix it. Knowing how to fix it isn’t enough.

Never underestimate the power of certainty in convincing patients that they can be cured. Practitioners of science-based medicine are constrained by science, what is known, and the level of uncertainty about what is known and what will work. “Practitioners” like Robert O. Young are not. Indeed, Kim Tinkham’s testimonial still figures prominently on Robert O. Young’s website.

Death by “alternative” medicine: Who is to blame?

Every indication I have been able to find indicates that Kim Tinkham has recently developed lung, liver, and bone metastases. Worse, she is apparently in bad enough shape that she will soon die of her breast cancer. Her friends, family, and business associates have banded together to raise funds for her and her family, which makes me wonder if Tinkham has medical insurance. Given that she ran her own business, it is quite possible that she did not. Whatever the case, if she has insurance, chances are that her final treatment, including, if she desired it, hospice would be covered. Based on that suspicion alone, I’m tempted to donate to the fund myself, because I view Tinkham more as a victim of quackery than anything else. That does not mean that she should be completely absolved of all responsibility for her decision. She is, after all, an adult. However, far more blame should go to Robert O. Young, who claimed he could cure cancer when he can’t and offered Tinkham a false hope of a cure for breast cancer without the pain and difficulty of undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. It’s “practitioners” like Young who see a weakness or a need to believe in someone like Tinkham and then take full advantage of it. I can’t help but wonder if there are family members and friends who, having seen Tinkham’s choice in 2007, feared the arrival of this day. I wonder what they are going through. It must be truly horrible, particularly the guilt from wondering if they could have done something differently to persuade Tinkham not to take the course she took.

Then, let’s not forget Oprah Winfrey. Oprah Winfrey, after all, rewarded Tinkham’s decision to use The Secret as justification for rejecting science-based therapy and choosing quackery. While it is true that during her interview with Tinkham Oprah appeared distinctly uncomfortable that The Secret had lead Tinkham to reject effective therapy for her breast cancer:

This is part of the therapy that Tinkham is following.

Shockingly, Oprah actually sounds almost reasonable here. Almost. Too bad the shock of being confronted by someone who used woo that Oprah promoted instead of effective therapy didn’t keep Oprah from later doing things like promoting faith healers like John of God. More recently, as happened at the Ministry of Truth, all mention of Tinkham on Oprah’s website appears to have been thrown down the memory hole. Search Oprah’s website for Tinkham’s name, and you’ll find nothing other than a couple of mentions in the community forums, such as So, what ever happened to Kim Tinkham? I wonder if Oprah knows what, in fact, has happened to Kim Tinkham. I wonder what she will say when she finds out. If there is time and Tinkham isn’t too ill, perhaps Oprah would send a film crew out to Tinkham’s house to show her audience the result of Tinkham’s choice of eschewing science-based medicine in favor of pseudoscience.

The most depressing thing about this testimonial is that it did not have to be this way. It really didn’t. If Kim Tinkham did indeed have stage III cancer in 2007, she would have had (roughly) a 50-50 chance of beating it if she had only accepted science-based treatment. Not fantastic odds, but way better than the odds she faced by not accepting treatment. By refusing science-based surgical and medical therapy, she reduced her chances to about as close to zero as you can get. Yes, it’s true, even if she had accepted aggressive science-based therapy, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, that Tinkham might still have ultimately found herself in this situation, but refusing therapy guaranteed it. It should also not be forgotten that, as Peter Moran has pointed out for other cancer cure testmonials, it’s very common for the testimonials of people who ultimately died of their cancers to persist long beyond their deaths as “proof” that various cancer quackeries “work.” I expect to see the same thing happening with Kim Tinkham, particularly given that no mention is explicitly made on either Caring for Kim or its associated Facebook page.

Finally, I wonder what we as science-based practitioners can do to reduce the number of Kim Tinkhams being victimized in the future by dubious pratictioners. It’s too late for Tinkham, but it’s not too late for others. Ms. Tinkham has spoken over and over again about how she didn’t like the feeling of “being rushed” and how she wanted to “take control.” Doctors offered her options, but they were not options she liked. So she found others, ignoring that they have no science to support them and no evidence to suggest that they do anything to treat cancer. Even for an intelligent woman, the siren song of quackery can be strong. I’ve written about this question before in a post entitled Death by “alternative” medicine: Who’s to blame?, in which I asked: How much are we as a profession responsible when cancer patients seek out quackery rather than effective medicine? Even now, four years later, I would be lying if I said I knew the answer, but I do believe that we need to do a better job at assuaging the fears of someone like Kim Tinkham.

Kim Tinkham has every appearance of being a lovely and vibrant woman who was only 50 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Potentially, she could have had another 30 or 40 years in front of her, but that’s all gone now. Even in spite of her bad decision, one must note that, after her diagnosis, Tinkham continued to run her own business, edited a local newsletter, and won the First Annual Civility Star Award. She did not have to die, but she is going to die soon. It didn’t have to be this way, but it is.

That is the price of quackery.