If I told you that I can cure cancer by any of the following:
Some random exotic fruit
and said that doctors, scientists and big pharma are in some giant conspiracy and they don’t actually WANT to cure you. What would you say?
I hope you’d just laugh, and tell me not to be so ridiculous, and if I persisted I hope some sedatives and a nice white coat would be on hand, but a story I was told the other day has highlighted once again, how ignorant, selfish and dangerous an unfounded belief in so-called alternative therapies can be.
The story went something like this: a young man in his twenties was diagnosed with lung cancer, he had a round of chemotherapy but the cancer returned and he was advised to have surgery and further chemo. This young man then refused surgery because he didn’t want to live with only 1 and a half lungs and refused chemo because it was just poison and instead embarked on a highly publicised campaign for dietary alternative therapy that he believed would cleanse him of his cancer. He was featured on tv and had many followers on his blog telling him how brave he was and how they wanted to do the same, give up on tested western medicine and try eating more celery instead (maybe not celery but you get the gist). Of course, shortly afterwards his cancer aggressively metastasised and he died, but I’ll bet people are still reading his blog and looking up to him.
The same theme has been bouncing around the Internet for years and the newspapers for at least a century. There are more and more sites popping up claiming to have some secret cure that doctors don’t want you to know about and it is causing a lot of unnecessary and dangerous attention to be turned to practices that are untested and unregulated and away from those that are. They appeal to our primal desire to find a natural answer, an offer of something familiar and proclaimed as safe in stark contrast to the frightening array of strange and powerful drugs with terrible side-effects. I understand how desperate people can get, I really do, but it breaks my heart to think of desperate souls reading this mumbo-jumbo and thinking that’s the way forward for them too, an easier option, and it is for those people precisely that I start to worry about these days of selfpublishing, of irresponsible use of freedom of speech. For a much better, more accurate version of this diatribe see here, it’s a fascinating read. At least the Guardian have got their head screwed on considering this subject. Hopefully the media coverage of the demise of Steve Jobs and the revelation that he regretted choosing alternative therapies such that proper treatment came too late to save him, will encourage at least a few to reconsider their position.
For anyone who clicked a link expecting me to be touting a new miracle craze, I’d like to explain what cancer actually is as what it isn’t, as far as I understand it (I’m a biochemist but not oncologist).
Cancer is not an impurity, a curse, a possession, invasion or a myth.
Your body is made up of millions of cells that all check themselves regularly to make sure they are functioning normally. If they fail quality control, the cells go through one of the many pathways to death, and generally speaking, another cell comes along to take its space. More or less a one-in-one-out situation because your body is a pretty full concerthall. Anyway, sometimes a cell has a problem with its DNA so that it no longer realises that it should die, and it keeps on living even though it’s not working properly. This immortality means that the cell is alive much longer than they normally are, and other DNA problems, like those that tell it to divide when it shouldn’t (arguably this unregulated division might be the first step of cancer formation) So now you have cells that are dividing fast and don’t realise they are doing anything wrong, and your immune system hasn’t noticed a problem because the cells are your cells – they aren’t foreign. See here for a nice description about what cancer is in someone else’s (better) words. So how are you going to go about removing those cells that are starting to sap the nutrients out of your blood and are growing out of control and obstructing your organs without killing off your healthy cells? Well that is what billions of pounds of research goes into every year in the relentless search for cures for cancers because your cancer will be different from Fred’s cancer and Juliette’s…but rest assured that progress is always being made, and that abandoning cutting edge science for massage therapy is going to take you and your loved ones in only one prematurely sad and painful direction. Acupuncture and aromatherapy cannot reverse the DNA damage that has already occurred.
I’m writing this now because on a slightly different topic, I discovered the other day that the NHS are spending 4 million quid a year on homeopathy and I was dumbfounded. Doctors are educated people who are trained to treat according to rigorous, evidence-based studies…and to my knowledge, every attempt to verify the effectiveness of homeopathy has failed (as logic dictates) but patients are still demanding their sugar pills because they read somewhere that it’s better than antiretrovirals for HIV (or whatever condition they have). As well as being a staunch supporter of western medicine, I’m also a believer in the strength and usefulness of the placebo effect. I know someone who thinks that nibbling the corner of a paracetamol will trigger them to make their own painkillers and so thus they ‘cure’ their headaches by essentially taking no drugs. I’m not going to discuss the sanity of this individual right now, but the placebo effect is so strong that it can chase off a migraine. There are, clearly, times and places for placebos, but cancer treatment ain’t one of them.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for alternative positive things like meditation, healthy diet, vitamins, prayer and even acupuncture and art therapy if it makes you feel better, but when we are talking about serious health conditions never, and I mean NEVER instead of proper medical care.
Now for those that say that chemotherapy is unnecessary poison, I’d like you to think about it long and hard because honestly, the real poison is the false hope and abandonment of medical care that your words strive for.
I know I’m not saying anything new but it’s something I feel very strongly about, so I’m saying it anyway in an uncharacteristically serious and factual manner. The lifetime risk of cancer is fast-approaching 50%, and it’s something that will affect your life one way or another if it hasn’t already. Please be prepared, and take some time to understand new medical advances. Normal non-ranting blog service will resume shortly.
“I don’t want to be hostile.
I don’t want to be dismal.
But I don’t want to rot in an apathetic existance either.” ~Tool, intolerance