I’ve been writing nearly exclusively about COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic since March, mainly because it is the source of so much potentially deadly misinformation, bad science, pseudoscience, and attempts at science twisted by ideology that it basically overwhelms everything else. However, every so often, I need a break and a return to topics that I used to write about on a much more regular basis. As Jesus said about the poor, the coronavirus disinformation campaign will be with us always, at least until the pandemic ends, which looks to be no time soon. One of the recurring topics of this blog going all the way back to the very beginning. It comes in the form of a BBC Three documentary by journalist Layla Wright, False Hope? Alternative Cancer Cures. Unfortunately, because geofencing, I can only see snippets on the BBC website. There are also news articles about it:
Families of cancer patients who died after rejecting conventional treatments at hospital and spending thousands on alternative remedies including homeopathy claim their loved ones may still be alive if it wasn’t for ‘dangerous’ clinics that ‘radicalised’ them in a shocking new documentary.
In one scene during BBC Three’s False Hope? Alternative Cancer Cures, an owner of a thermal imaging clinic in Liverpool is recorded saying ‘a lump won’t kill you’ to an undercover reporter posing as a patient with suspected breast cancer.
Ironically, the rather long story above about the documentary was in the Daily Mail, a UK tabloid that I’ve often lambasted for promoting cancer quackery of the very sort that False Hope demolishes in segments like this one, where a reporter went undercover to a Medical Thermal Imaging, a clinic in Merseyside owned by a homeopath named Rosa Hughs and her husband and featured in False Hope:
“When, really, you know the lump actually will not kill you?” This is one of those statements that is sort of true. Except in rare cases (e.g., large, ulcerated, fungating masses that bleed and become infected), the cancer in the breast itself doesn’t kill you, but the primary tumor does serve as the source of metastases, of tumor spread to elsewhere in the body, and the metastases do kill you.
I’ve written about thermography before, of course. Thermography uses infrared imaging to measure heat coming from the body. There’s nothing magical about it; the technology has been in use for various applications for decades. The rationale for applying thermography to the detection of breast cancer (or any cancer) is that cancer tend to induce angiogenesis, which is nothing more than the ingrowth of new blood vessels into the tumor to supply its nutrient and oxygen needs. A tumor that can’t induce angiogenesis can’t grow beyond the diffusion limit in aqueous solution, which is less than 1 mm in diameter. These blood vessels result in additional blood flow, which results in additional heat. In addition, the metabolism of breast cancer cells tends to be faster than the surrounding tissue, and cancer is often associated with inflammation, two more reasons why the temperature of breast cancers might be higher than the surrounding normal breast tissue and therefore potentially imageable using infrared thermography.
Although thermography is scientifically plausible, unfortunately its reality has not lived up to its promise, as is documented in False Hope.
Upon watching the snippets and reading the accounts, I was surprised to learn that I had never heard of Sean Walsh before, given that he was a young musician in a band called The Haze and was one of the many cancer patients who rejected conventional therapy and raised many thousands of pounds through GoFundMe. Walsh’s cancer story began in 2015, when at the age of 18 he was diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He underwent standard treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, beginning with six months of chemotherapy, after which he went into remission. Unfortunately, his cancer recurred less than two years later. As is typical for recurrent Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the recommendation was high dose chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant. As is usually the case in these stories, there aren’t a lot of details. (Indeed, the story above has more detail than the story about False Hope; presumably the full documentary tells more, but, being geofenced out I can’t watch the whole documentary.)
From here on out, the story is all too familiar:
He had spent less than two years in remission following a gruelling six months of chemotherapy, but his cancer returned and required additional chemo with a stem cell transplant. Doctors told him he had at least a 50 per cent chance of long term survival if he went ahead with the conventional treatment.
But Sean’s mother Dawn told how he ‘didn’t want to do it all over again’. She remembered a chance encounter with homeopath Phil, whom she claimed told her he’d successfully treated his wife Rosa for breast cancer.
Dawn went along to the first appointment, where she claims Phil was ‘talking about how damaging chemotherapy is on the human body’.
‘He was saying, “I’ve had lots of people come to my clinic but by the time I get them they’re shot with all this chemotherapy so I can’t help them,” and then he was talking about how you can change your diet,’ she said.
He and his girlfriend Aimee McDonald spent hours online researching alternative and cancer conspiracy theories.
Going back through the stories and articles they read, Aimee admitted: ‘I understand that I was at one point in the situation where I believed this. When you’re in your own bubble it really is like radicalisation, that’s the word I use because I just turned into a different person.
‘Looking back at this now it’s crazy that I ever wrote like this and thought this.’
Sean switched to a fully organic, vegan, raw and gluten free diet and began taking supplements. He also tried cannabis oil and even coffee enemas.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The indoctrination into alternative cancer cures is very cult-like. Reasonable people who never would have thought themselves capable of falling for this sort of quackery can and do fall under its sway.
The wrinkle here is that Phillip Hughes sucked Walsh in by claiming that he had successfully treated his wife for breast cancer. Whenever I hear stories like that of Rosa Hughes, my skeptical antennae start twitching. The reason is simple. I’ve looked into these stories many times before, and what actually happened almost never evidence that the alternative treatment “worked” to treat the breast cancer. It didn’t take much Googling to come across this document describing how Phillip Hughes supposedly “cured” his wife of breast cancer. The year was 2006, and, as Mr. Hughes related the story, his wife had discovered a lump in her breast:
Our introduction to medical digital infrared thermal imaging happened in 2006 when my wife, Rosa, discovered a lump in her left breast. The discovery created a time of stress, apprehension and fear. We knew it was important to determine whether the lump was benign or malignant. We also made a firm decision that, whatever the outcome, we were not going to go to war with the lump, nor were we going to expose Rosa to anything that would increase the risk of cancer.
A friend who was aware of our dilemma asked if we had considered thermography. We hadn’t heard of thermography, but what she told us about the procedure created a curiosity that warranted research into the subject. We were amazed to find an abundance of quality research in PubMed, displaying the benefits of DITI. The procedure fit all of Rosa’s requirements, and we proceeded to look for a clinic offering the service. At the time, there were very few practices, but we eventually found a clinic in Harley Street that suited our needs, and we made arrangements for Rosa to be imaged. When the images were interpreted, they showed Rosa was at extremely high risk for malignancy. The upside, however, was that we were abel to monitor Rosa’s condition and treatments without increasing risk. As such, Rosa is alive today and very well.
Notice what’s missing from this story. First, there’s no mention of a biopsy to obtain a tissue diagnosis. A very basic rule of oncology for breast cancer is that can’t say a woman with a breast lump has breast cancer without actually getting some tissue and having a pathologist look at it under the microscope. The tissue is all. It determines what treatments in addition to surgery will be recommended. I looked around for other accounts of Rosa Hughes’ “breast cancer” (for instance, this one and this one) and none of them said anything about biopsy, tissue diagnosis, or anything else. In other words, it’s almost certain that they only diagnostic test used to diagnose her “breast cancer” was thermography. Again, imaging, be it mammography, ultrasound, MRI, or thermography can’t prove that a mass is cancer. Sure, a mass can look very suspicious for cancer on MRI, ultrasound, or mammography to the point that we say it’s cancer until proven otherwise, but thermography has never been validated to screen for or diagnose breast cancer. Basically, it’s old technology and too imprecise, as I discussed in detail a decade ago and every so often since.
Basically, the MO of quack clinics like this is to do thermography and then prescribe all manner of dietary supplements and other woo, and then declare victory. It works with patients like Rosa Hughes, who almost certainly never had cancer to begin with. For patients with actual cancer…not so much. Worse, stories like that of Rosa Hughes, even though they are not evidence that homeopathy or other quackery can do anything to treat breast cancer, become advertising copy because they sound persuasive to desperate cancer patients like Sean Walsh:
“She’d had a lump in her breast, and she decided not to do hospital treatment, and she was going to, you know, reverse the cancer herself.
“So obviously Sean’s listening to this thinking, ‘Well, if one person’s done it, and then I’m hearing other little stories off them, I can do this’.”
According to the documentary, Sean’s scans did carry a disclaimer, stating that thermography does not see or diagnose cancer and recommending further clinical investigation.
But the scan results left Sean feeling convinced his cancer had gone.
Medical Thermal Imaging describe their scans as “100% safe and radiation-free”.
Dawn told reporters she believed the thermographic scans gave Sean false hope.
There’s no doubt about that at all. Walsh believed that his tumors were getting smaller because the Hughes told him that they were based on thermography. When he was finally admitted to the hospital near the end of his life, though, his main tumor had grown to the size of a grapefruit. He had fluid buildup in his abdomen and cancerous masses throughout his chest.
Walsh, sadly, was not the only one:
Lorna Halliday, a senior scientist at Cambridge University, told how her mother Linda was given ‘really good’ survival odds if she underwent a mastectomy followed by chemo and radiotherapy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Instead, Linda turned down the recommended NHS treatments and started taking alternative medicines such as mistletoe injections from a number of alternative practitioners. She died in 2014.
The Hughes’s delusions or lies were the same for Halliday:
Lorna said: ‘[Mum] had thermography with Rosa Hughes which she believed were tracking her cancer.
‘She was going to the clinic and saying “I think it’s growing, I’m pretty sure it’s getting bigger” and she could feel it was getting bigger, and yet the scans were saying that it wasn’t growing.’
Lorna said she feels her mother was given ‘a false sense of belief’, adding: ‘Philip would prescribe her a new homeopathic treatment so I think she was reassured that she was doing something.
Linda started using a corrosive herbal remedy called black salve which she got from another alternative therapist. She allegedly told her GP it was ‘drawing out her cancer’.
When her disease progressed, Lorna told how a doctor warned her mother she had an ‘ulcerating tumour’
‘[The doctor said] you have an open wound and told Mum the truth, and I know that Mum was very emotional and very upset,’ Lorna recalled.
‘I think she knew it was probably too late and couldn’t face the truth about what was happening, but I think part of her knew.’
Black salve is a highly corrosive extract from various plants that I like to refer to as “cutting, burning, and poisoning ‘naturally,’” because that is basically what it does (although it does way more burning than anything else). That’s why it sometimes works to eliminate small skin cancers. The way I like to put it is that, yes, it destroys the tumor, but in a much messier, more painful, and more disfiguring manner than a clean surgical resection of the tumor would. When it comes to tumors in the body or beneath the skin (for example, a breast cancer), all black salve does is to cause burns and ulceration, and that’s what it did for Halliday.
The result? Sadly, it was all too predictable. Halliday developed a large open wound with ulceration and ultimately died of sepsis when the wound became infected, a common story among those using black salve.
Naturally, the Hughes deny that they ever encourage patients, including Walsh and Halliday, to forego conventional oncological treatment of their cancers or that they peddle false hope. And, guess what? Serious charges led the Hughes to actually admit something very important, something I’d guessed based on her story alone:
It added that they ‘utterly reject the very serious allegation that they encouraged Mr Walsh to turn down conventional treatment, or otherwise gave him inappropriate advice’.
Regarding Linda Halliday, they said: ‘It is similarly untrue that [we] discouraged… Ms Halliday from seeking conventional treatment on this basis,’ adding that her last consultation was 10 months before her death.
‘We understand that Ms Halliday was investigating other alternative treatments during that period,’ it read.
‘As to the suggestion [we] claim to have “treated and cured Mrs Hughes of breast cancer with out conventional treatment”, we have never claimed this and indeed Mrs Hughes has never been diagnosed through a biopsy.’
There you go. Grifters gonna grift (while trying to evade responsibility with a Quack Miranda warning), all while denying responsibility for the death they leave in their wakes. Cancer patients whose lives might have been saved, like Sean Walsh and Linda Halliday, are the marks who pay the price for the false hope peddled by the likes of the Hughes couple.