I write about cancer quackery a lot, and I’ve been at it for over a decade. I first cut my teeth on Usenet, delving into that cesspit of unreason known as misc.health. alternative, where my eyes were opened to just the sorts of pseudoscientific and unscientific cancer treatments patients are enticed into trying, sometimes in lieu of effective, science-based therapy. Sometimes, they’re lucky enough to get away with it, such cases occurring most commonly when they have undergone effective primary surgery or other therapy for their cancer that eliminated it before the quackery was ever tried. Sometimes, when they eschew science-based therapy in favor of quackery, the outcome is disastrous indeed, sometimes worse than no treatment at all. Then a few years later I started the first iteration of this blog, and I’ve been at it for over eight and a half years. Through that time, I thought I had seen every cancer quackery there was, every bizarre idea about cancer conceived by the mind of human beings, every just plain dumb idea used to treat cancer.
Obviously, with a buildup like that, you know where this is going. I was wrong. It seems that, no matter how much experience I gain analyzing the pseudoscientific claims of cancer quacks, there is always one more claim that I hadn’t heard of. So it was last night, when I came across an e-mail with a link to something called the Personal Liberty Digest. Don’t ask me how I got on such a mailing list. I have no idea. I just know that, no matter how many times I hit “unsubscribe” I always seem to end up back on this mailing list. It’s basically an online newsletter that is a cornucopia of pure right wing Libertarian crankery by a guy named Bob Livingston. In addition to being a total right wing crank, Livingston is apparently also a serious woo-meister, describing himself thusly:
Between age thirty-eight and age forty, Bob had four heart attacks. He decided that taking double handfuls of prescription drugs was far worse than heart disease. He was sure that he did not have a drug deficiency. This led Bob to a serious search for health. His suspicions of government and politics carried over into so-called orthodox medicine. He has concluded that today, organized medicine is literally a killing machine.
Well, Bob never had the surgery his doctors strongly advised 36 years ago. All three surgeons who said he would die without the surgery have since died. Bob, however, is healthier than he has ever been!
Thirty-nine years of research study in health and nutrition qualifies Bob as a nutritional expert. He literally has volumes of information to share with his readers. Bob believes that the credibility of the medical establishment is eroding quickly and will soon collapse. As this transition evolves, natural alternatives for health and nutrition will be vital for your survival!
I love to use people like Bob Livingston as counterexamples to people who try to argue that quackery and a tendency towards credulity towards the claims of “natural healing” are the province of liberals and left wingers. They’re not, and Bob Livingston is just another example illustrating that they’re not. But I digress. In reality, I’m very much interested in one particular example of cancer quackery promoted by Livingston. It’s something so mind-numbingly ridiculous that I have a hard time believing that anyone can believe that it could work, but apparently Bob Livingston does. He promoted this “natural cancer treatment” in a response to a reader’s question. This particular reader has a son with glioblastoma that has recurred after surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. As I’ve said so many times before, my heart goes out to such patients and their families. It’s truly horrible, and what “conventional” science-based medicine has to offer is not curative. Now, when I first saw the letter, I thought that this woman was going to ask about Stanislaw Burzynski, but fortunately she did not. Unfortunately, she did ask about something she referred to as the “bicarbonate maple syrup cancer treatment.” Livingston was more than happy to refer her to his article entitled, appropriately enough, Bicarbonate Maple Syrup Cancer Treatment.
Livingston introduces this treatment thusly:
The bicarbonate maple syrup cancer treatment focuses on delivering natural chemotherapy in a way that effectively kills cancer cells, but significantly reduces the brutal side effects experienced with most standard chemotherapy treatments. In fact, so great is the reduction that the dangers are brought down to zero. Costs, which are a factor for the majority of people, of this particular treatment are nil.
Though this cancer treatment is very inexpensive, do not assume it is not effective. The bicarbonate maple syrup cancer treatment is a very significant cancer treatment every cancer patient should be familiar with, and it can easily be combined with other safe and effective natural treatments.
Ain’t that always the case? I do think it’s rather funny that Livingston thinks his treatment is “natural chemotherapy.” You want to know what else is “natural chemotherapy? Taxol! It’s made of the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. (Well, at least that’s where it was originally isolated from; these days it’s synthesized chemically.) There’s a lot of real, effective chemotherapy that’s derived from natural products and can thus lay claim to being “natural chemotherapy.” So what does Livingston come up with? Maple syrup mixed with bicarbonate! I mean, really? Seriously?
Even worse, the idea is represented as being similar to one of the dumbest, most dangerous “alternative” cancer therapies in existence, insulin potentiation therapy (IPT). Currently, the leading proponent of IPT is a guy named Stephen B. Ayre, M.D., although a long line of dubious practitioners before him promoted it. Basically, the idea behind IPT is that cancer cells like sugar and the idea that insulin increases drug uptake. The claim is thus that using IPT allows the use of less chemotherapy. It doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop quacks from claiming that. So here’s the way IPT is administered. The quack will give the patient a high dose of insulin, enough to drive his blood sugar down, at which point the patient is given chemotherapy, usually at subtherapeutic doses. (After all, the whole idea is that insulin allegedly decreases the amount of chemotherapy needed.) After that, the patient is then given glucose to bring him back from the hypoglycemia caused by the insulin.
As I said, for pure dangerous stupidity in concept, IPT easily takes the prize. True, homeopathy is even dumber in concept, but at least it’s just water and not likely to put a person into hypoglycemic shock. (Remember, in IPT, the goal is to drive the patient’s blood sugar below 50 mg/dL, levels nearly guaranteed to provoke symptoms of hypoglycemia and that allow no margin for error if the “natural practitioner” overshoots and drives the patient’s blood glucose level to life-threateningly low levels. The brain, in particular, relies on blood glucose for energy and in particular doesn’t appreciate it when levels fall too low.) Unfortunately, the bicarbonate maple syrup treatment looks to be contending with IPT for the prize of dumbest alternative cancer therapy. I’ll let Bob Livingston describe the concept:
The bicarbonate maple syrup treatment works in reverse to IPT. Roman oncologist Dr. Tullio Simoncini acknowledges that cancer cells gobble up sugar, so when you encourage the intake of sugar it’s like sending in a Trojan horse. The sugar is not going to end up encouraging the further growth of the cancer colonies because the baking soda is going to kill the cells before they have a chance to grow.
Instead of artificially manipulating insulin and thus forcefully driving down blood sugar levels to then inject toxic chemo agents, we combine the sugar with the bicarbonate and present it to the cancer cells, which at first are going to love the present. But not for long!
Tullio Simoncini? Oh, dear. That’s not a good thing. Does anyone remember him? He’s an Italian quack who thinks all cancer is in reality a fungus. I kid you not. Why does he say this? Because tumors are white and fungus is white. Again, I kid you not. I wish I were kidding, but I can’t make stuff like this up. But it’s even worse than that. If cancer is a fungus, as Simoncini claims, what, then, would be an appropriate treatment? If you suggest that maybe an antifungal drug would be a good choice to kill a fungus, you’d be wrong. No, to Simoncini, the way to kill the “fungus” that is (to him, at least) cancer, you need to pump it up with sodium bicarbonate. Again, the mind boggles.
With this background, you can now understand Livingston’s “rationale,” such as it is. He really thinks that this treatment is some sort of cancer-targeted treatment, a “Trojan horse,” if you will, in which cancer cells’ avidity for sugar leads them to lap up the sugar but, because the bicarbonate allegedly binds to the sugars in the maple syrup, it’s brought along for the ride. According to this treatment concept, the bicarbonate bound to the maple syrup gets taken up by the cancer cells along with the sugar and kills the cancer cells. Yes, the basic idea is the same as linking chemotherapeutic drugs to antibodies to form antibody-drug conjugates, which bring the lethal package to the cells. We see this sort of idea in oncology all the time, as medicinal chemists try to find ways to bring chemotherapy drugs or imaging agents to the cancer cell specifically.
The bicarbonate maple syrup treatment is not one of these strategies.
How stupid is bicarbonate maple syrup? Let me count the ways. Even if the bicarbonate is hard to separate from the syrup, after the syrup is consumed, it’s broken down into its component sugars, and the sodium bicarbonate is absorbed into the bloodstream to be used either to buffer the pH of the blood or to be immediately excreted by the kidneys blood pH is within the normal range needs no adjustment. That’s not even counting the part that might be turned into carbon dioxide and exhaled through the lungs. So basically, this treatment can’t do what is claimed for it, as the mechanism claimed for its activity is contradicted by chemistry and human physiology. Let’s just look at it this way, what Bob Livingston says is this:
This treatment is a combination of pure, 100 percent maple syrup and baking soda and was first reported on the http://www.CancerTutor.com site. When mixed and heated together, the maple syrup and baking soda bind together. The maple syrup targets cancer cells (which consume 15 times more glucose than normal cells) and the baking soda, which is dragged into the cancer cell by the maple syrup, being very alkaline, forces a rapid shift in pH—thereby killing the cell.
The actual formula is to mix one part baking soda with three parts maple syrup (pure, 100 percent) in a small saucepan. Stir briskly and heat the mixture for five minutes. Cancer Tutor suggests taking 1 teaspoon daily, but one could probably do this several times a day.
“There is not a tumor on God’s green earth that cannot be licked with a little baking soda and maple syrup.” That is the astonishing claim of controversial folk healer Jim Kelmun who says that this simple home remedy can stop and reverse the deadly growth of cancers. His loyal patients swear by the man they fondly call Dr. Jim and say he is a miracle worker.
That is not what happens. Moreover, a large tablespoon of such a mixture is so tiny a dose as to be inconsequential. Even if you take four tablespoons, as this version of the protocol recommends, it’s still not very much. As for Jim Kelmun, all he has are testimonials and a highly dubious “origin” story for his cancer cure.
The whole concept of the bicarbonate maple syrup cancer treatment is one of those ideas that sounds plausible only if you don’t know anything about chemistry, don’t know anything about human physiology, and don’t know anything about cancer. It makes me glad that I try to use my powers for good. As a cancer surgeon and cancer biologist, I know I could come up with quackery more convincing than quackery like the bicarbonate maple syrup cancer cure, of which Kelmun says, “There’s not a tumor on God’s green earth that can’t be licked with a little baking soda and maple syrup!” Would that it were that easy!
Be glad that I have morals and that I don’t use my powers for evil. Be very glad. I didn’t even dissect Livingston’s claim that you shouldn’t use baking soda with aluminum in it. I bet aI can come up with a reason why aluminum potentiates the fantasy anti-tumor effect of baking soda and bicarbonate.