By Heather Millar
Not long after I was diagnosed with cancer, an alternative medicine professional shared this kernel of wisdom: “You know, cancer is protein. So if you cut all protein out of your diet, you can cure your cancer. You’ll starve the cancer to death.”
This woman is someone I highly respect, someone who helped my daughter work through some vision and body sense challenges. Still, I was floored by her suggestion: Give up protein? How could this possibly be serious advice?
It seems to be part of human condition: When we’re scared, we’ll believe all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s frustrating that there are still so many unanswered questions about cancer. Sometimes that frustration may lead even normally skeptical people to see conspiracies and magical cures.
When it comes to medical advice, the Internet has made questionable products and regimens even more accessible to even more people. Shark cartilage cures cancer! Or maybe: cat’s claw cures cancer! Or, grapes! Or, coral calcium!
So how do you tell if something has really been tested and researched? Here are a few rules that I’ve long employed as a reporter, and I think they work for any cancer patient trying to figure out the pros and cons of various treatments.
• Look at the numbers. The more people have tested the treatment, the better. A study with a few dozen subjects does not carry nearly the same weight as one with hundreds or thousands of subjects.
• Does the research have controls? Most medical research tests new treatments by having a “control” group, a group of patients that doesn’t receive the treatment being researched. That way, doctors can compare the outcomes for those receiving the new treatment and those who don’t. The idea is the treatment should offer some benefits beyond that of sugar pills, or some other “placebo” treatment.
• Has the research been published? “Research” should not mean interviewing or testing a few people on a freelance basis. It should follow scientific protocols.
• If the research has been published, where has it been published? A company newsletter or a website shouldn’t be enough. Ideally the research should appear in a vetted scientific or medical journal. These publications consult panels of experts that vet new research before publishing it. While this raises the barriers to new ideas, it also guards against sloppy or badly conceived research.
• Who funded the research? You often can find clues to who’s backing the work on the “About Us” section of a website, or the footnotes of a paper. Look for the affiliations of the research team: Do their paychecks come from universities or corporations? If someone is touting broccoli as a cure-all and was funded by the American Broccoli Growers Association or some such, then beware.
Ideally, the research should get its support from some independent organization such as the American Cancer Society, or a governmental body such as the National Cancer Institute. These kinds of organizations don’t award funding without approval by an expert panel. Thus, research funded this way is less likely to be driven by commercial interests.
• Exactly how far along is the research? It may indeed be important and exciting that scientists found a cancer suppressor in a species of tropical beetle, or that a Phase I clinical trial was a success. But beetles are a long way from humans; and Phase I trials must be followed by Phase II and Phase III trials before getting Food and Drug Administration approval. Early results don’t mean cures tomorrow.
If you’ve asked all these questions about a new treatment and you’re still not sure, the American Cancer Society website offers a good overview on how to judge alternative and complementary treatments for cancer patients.
Check out Quackwatch, an international network of people concerned about health myths, frauds and fallacies. Their website gives an overview of alternative cancer treatments, ways to spot dubious cures, and an extensive list of “cures” that should be avoided.
By all means, look for the best treatment you can find. But don’t be taken in by the snake oil salesmen.