The complexity of cancer, part II: Enter the quacks

A couple of days ago, I couldn’t resist discussing a recent article in the New York Times about recent discoveries in cancer research. I considered the article to be a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. While the article did a pretty good job of describing recent discoveries about how noncoding RNA, the tumor microenvironment, and even microbes are involved in the pathogenesis of cancer, it had an annoying spin that portrayed some of these discoveries as being much shinier and newer than they actually are. At the time, I noted that quacks would certainly use this article as a jumping-off point to attack conventional medicine, and, of course, they did.

My expectation when I first encountered the NYT article was that someone like everyone’s favorite quack and all-around conspiracy theorist Mike Adams or everyone’s favorite entrepreneurial crank Joe Mercola would leap all over the article. To my surprise, neither did. On the other hand, another of my “favorite” crank organizations, namely the International Medical Veritas Association, leapt into the breach where the more famous cranks didn’t. One interesting thing I learned delving into this nonsense is that there are apparently two different “Medical Veritas” organizations. The first one (and the one I’m most familiar with) is Medical Veritas International and publishes the infamous Medical Veritas journal, which is is apparently no longer being published and used to bill itself as the “journal of medical truth.” It was also rabidly anti-vaccine and HIV/AIDS denialist. The second organization is the International Medical Veritas Association. This latter organization is headed up by an acupuncturist Mark Sircus, who writes the IMVA blog.

At this point I can’t help but wonder what this fascination is with “truth” among medical cranks. The fascination is so strong that we have not just one, but apparently two, cranks groups named, in essence, “medical truth.” As I always say, medicine and science are not about “truth.” They are about testing hypotheses, designing models, and developing theories that make useful predictions about how nature behaves. “Truth” is not what scientists are about, but it is apparently what cranks are about. Perhaps that’s why they favor such simplistic answers and cling to them with religious fervor. But I digress.

Sircus, it turns out, fancies himself a cancer expert and penned a lovely little ditty he entitled Cancer Still a Mystery to Medical Science. In many ways, that might be true, but as I’ve pointed out, just because science doesn’t know everything doesn’t mean that you can fill in the gaps with whatever nonsense that catches your fancy, or, as Dara O’Briain puts it, “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop.” Sircus, in a single article, not only shows the arrogance of ignorance, he reveals a quack technique that I’ve noticed before but have never really seen done so blatantly:

Quite a few people make quite a lot of money by insisting on complicating the subject of cancer. Medical scientists continue to explore the far reaches of cell physiology in their still deeply frustrated attempt to understand cancer. As they explore further, the picture only becomes more complicated as a recent article in the New York Times demonstrates. It is just too hard for complicated minds to sum up cancer in simple terms–as tissue rot–that takes us quickly and painfully to our deaths if not resolved.

For the last decade cancer research has been guided by a common vision of how a single cell, out competing its neighbors, evolves into a malignant tumor. Like ostriches with their heads cemented into the ground they have obsessed with their “common vision” no matter what evidence has been revealed. These mainstream medical scientists admit that, “new theories are still coming out that will possibly change how we treat the disease.” “They just keep on getting deeper and deeper into the mire of all that DNA stuff………..needing more research money, never finding anything that makes any difference for anyone,” writes Claudia French, RN.

See what I mean? According to Sircus, physicians make money by “complicating” the subject of cancer. To Sircus and the quacks, cancer isn’t “complicated.” Oh, no! It’s seeming complexity, such as what I’ve written about time and time again is a plot to keep you–yes, you!–from being able to understand cancer and thus be “empowered” (i.e., fleeced) by those who “understand” cancer. The rest of the article then reads like a laundry list of cancer quackery. For example, we have vitamin C quackery in which Sircus cites a recent study published in Cancer Research to support his case. The problem, of course, as is so often the case when promoters of quackery cite scientific studies regarding vitamin C and cancer is that he extrapolates far beyond what the study supports. Basically, the study showed that low ascorbate levels were associated with more aggressive phenotypes in endometrial cancer, as well as elevated levels of a protein called HIF-1, which is associated with hypoxia and increased angiogenesis. That’s about it. Instead of citing the study itself, Sircus cites a news story about the study, a news story that happened to have an opening paragraph that misrepresented the finding of the study as having found that “Vitamin C can help curb the growth of cancer cells.” Nothing in the study demonstrated that, but that doesn’t stop Sircus from boldly (and ignorantly) proclaiming, “Oncologists never made it to first grade as far as knowledge of nutrition and its role in health and disease.”

Of course, according to Sircus, hiding the role of nutrition in cancer is all part of the medical conspiracy:

How the Times medical editorial staff let this essay through is beyond me and how they could say, “Understanding how cancer starts with a single cell and then grows into a tumor is fundamental into one day preventing the disease,” is ridiculous. When it dawns on you that the article mentions not one word about nutritional deficiencies or anything about increasing exposures to heavy metals, toxic chemicals or radiation, we can see that there are people who really don’t want to understand cancer and how it can be avoided or cured.

The “reigning paradigm, a kind of Big Bang theory” for the cancer field, is just what they say it is–a theory and a cherished chosen belief system that we already know is full of holes. Doctors and dentists and just about everyone we know eats up the cancer Big Bang theory with fanatic fervor. It is so much fun to be a part of the in crowd and who wants ones medical board breathing down ones neck? We have to have some empathy for the doctors too afraid to buck the lockstep but we can only go so far in sparing them the consequence of harming people.

That’s right. At first, it seems to Sircus that the NYT had somehow bucked the conspiracy and slipped up, revealing some of its secrets and just how little scientists supposedly know about cancer, except that it was really a clever ruse in that it didn’t mention the things that really cause cancer. And, of course, I can’t help but reiterate that the fact that there are deficiencies in our scientific understanding of cancer, that we don’t know everything about cancer, does not imply that the quacks favored by Sircus do. It’s a classic appeal to ignorance, a sort of “God of the gaps” favored by creationists, except that instead of inserting God into holes in our understanding of cancer, as creationists do to holes in our understanding of evolution, quacks insert whatever quackery or magical thinking they happen to believe in. It’s the same process of science denial, just without necessarily requiring gods. It does, however, require religious thinking not unlike belief in god. Indeed, the very language that Sircus uses is infused with terms about belief, not the least of which is referring to the current scientific concepts about cancer biology as a “cherished chosen belief system” and the dedication of scientists and physicians to them as “fanatical fervor.”

There is one part of the NYT article, though, that Sircus liked. After chastising the editors for not mentioning nutrition or “toxic chemicals” and for not likening cancer to “literally rotting inside and dying from the loss of function, gathering infectious forces, and losing strength from malnutrition as the cancer cells eat us out of house and home,” Sircus discusses the microbe-cancer link mentioned in the NYT article. As you might recall, the NYT article spent a fair amount of verbiage (for a newspaper article) discussing how normal cells are coopted by cancers to assist in their growth and invasion, but in reality what interests Sircus the most is the part of the article discussing how interactions between the microbes that live on and in us (known as our “microbiome”) and our own cells resulting in cancer. Here’s where Sircus makes a hilariously off-base leap:

The germ theory of cancer is quite legitimate though medical authorities continue to crucify Dr. Tullio Simoncini for his focus on fungus and yeast as a central part of the cancer paradigm. Long before Simoncini walked the earth we have had research connecting fungus to cancer. Fungus is a microbe, and many scientists believe viruses, fungi and bacteria are all different stages of the microbe life cycle. Neither Dr. Dannenberg nor Dr. Simoncini is a medical heretic but many subjects in our contemporary civilization are just too taboo.

Wow. So much wrong concentrated into such a short paragraph. First of all, one must wonder who these “many” scientists are who don’t know the difference between viruses, fungi, and bacteria, all of which are hugely different organisms, not “different stages of the microbe life cycle.” Yes, ideas popularized by Antoine Béchamp do pop up in the strangest places, don’t they? Of course, Sircus is being disingenuous when he invokes Tullio Simoncini as a “legitimate scientist” who’s being “crucified” because he believes cancer is caused by a fungus. However, that’s not quite what Simoncini claims.

I’ve written extensively about the quack who is known as Tullio Simoncini before, beginning three years ago when I first came across him. Basically, Simoncini claims not that all cancer is caused by fungus, which would be wrong but not as insane as what he does preach, which is that all cancer is a fungus and that tumors are the body’s defense against this fungus, an idea very similar in a way to Robert O. Young’s idea that tumors are a defense against “cells spoiled by acid.” In other words, cancerous tumors are not the disease; they’re the body’s normal reaction.

If you don’t believe just how quacky Tullio Simoncini is, here is an interview with him for you to consider:

You can see just how dumb this video is by listening to Dr. Simoncini pontificate in the first couple of minutes of the video that whenever he sees a cancerous tumor in the body, the lumps are “always white.” He emphasizes this amazing observation several times, so apparently important is it. Yes, that was the observation that supposedly led him to his idea (I refuse to dignify it with the term “hypothesis”) that tumors are in fact due to fungus. In response, the host gushes about how brilliant that is and how obvious it is.

But that’s not the quackiest thing Simoncini preaches. Simoncini claims that the way to kill this “fungus”/”cancer” is with baking soda. Yes, baking soda. Simoncini injects baking soda into tumors and claims to be able to cure cancer that way, and his quackery has resulted in the deaths of patients and major delays in treatment in others. Not surprisingly, he’s been prosecuted in Italy and stripped of his medical license and is under investigation in the Netherlands for his quackery. Of late, Simoncini has been hawking his wares on UFO/conspiracy-type media outlets.

This is the man to whom Sircus refers to claim scientific respectability for his ideas! Yet it is enough for Sircus to conclude:

It really is hard to understand how the New York Times piece failed to mention any of these other important factors about cancer. We all have reason to distrust the field of oncology and medical science itself. Both consistently demonstrate criminal ignorance when it comes to cancer, what causes it, how to prevent it, and what to do about it when one gets it.

That’s the message of quacks. They want to convince you that doctors and scientists don’t know anything about cancer, that their incomplete understanding of the utter complexity of cancer is due to ideology and belief, not evidence. More importantly, they want you to believe in a view of cancer that is simple, neat, and, although sometimes based on a grain of science misinterpreted, utterly wrong.