By Heather Millar
When I was sick and in active treatment, I often thought of this quote attributed to the current Dalai Lama: “If a problem can be solved, it will be. If it cannot be solved, there is no point in worrying about it.”
Sounds so wise, right? During chemo, it helped me many times as I tried to keep anxiety at bay. But I had, and still have, hope. I’ve never had a doctor tell me my condition is untreatable, that I need to get my affairs in order. I didn’t have to think too hard about the “if it cannot be solved” part of the statement.
So what if the problem is metastatic disease? Fuzzy-headedness that won’t go away? Persistent and excruciating joint or bone pain? Chemo-related insomnia so severe that it makes normal functioning impossible?
That’s when people start grasping at straws, looking for anything that promises a solution. And that’s why, I think, crazy cancer “cures” have such staying power.
I’ve written about magical thinking among cancer patients before, and I’m sure this post will get comments from angry people who are absolutely convinced of the curative powers of curcumin, or shark cartilage, or mental imagery, or oxygen supplements, or energy treatments, or you name it. Some estimate that nearly 50 percent of cancer patients will adopt some form of unproven or unorthodox therapy, according to an oft-cited 1984 University of Pennsylvania study in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
This month, the journal Oncology has published a review of the scientific evidence for several supposed cancer cures. A doctor in the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan went over all the available research on various alternative cancer medicines. I’m not a doctor, but it seems to me that of course some “alternative therapies” have merit. When I was undergoing treatment for Stage I breast cancer, my doctors recommended an alternative treatment, glutamine powder, to help prevent neuropathy during chemotherapy. The tough part for us patients is separating the helpful from the silly. What the Sloan Kettering researcher found should give pause to anyone who’s thinking of abandoning traditional treatment for an “alternative” cure.
Here’s a brief overview:
• Laetrile. Also known as “amygdalin” and “Vitamin B17” (though it’s not really a vitamin). Laetrile became popular in the 1980s, and after several scientific studies proved it had no anti-cancer effect, the Food and Drug Administration banned it. Yet you can find hundreds of laetrile formulations on Amazon.
• Essiac. One of many herbal and dietary supplements used by cancer patients. Essiac, an herb combination also marketed as Flor-Essence, was initially used in the 1920s by a Native American healer from Canada. There is little safety or efficacy data on Essiac, and no clinical evidence to support its use.
• Entelev. Also sold as CanCell, ProtoCell and Cantron, this formulation is a combination of nitric acid, sodium sulfite, potassium hydroxide, sulfuric acid, and catechol. Sold since the 1930s, the theory is that the dark brown liquid balances the vibrations of cancer cells and causes them to self-digest. Animal studies by the National Cancer Institute in 1978 and 1991 found no evidence to support this.
• Shark cartilage. In the 1950s, a surgeon claimed that shark cartilage could shrink tumors by as much as 50 percent. In 1983, an MIT study found that shark cartilage seemed to block the formation of blood vessel that feed tumors. More recent studies in test tubes and in animals showed that the material seemed to have anti-tumor properties. Clinical studies—that is, studies in humans—have not been promising. Clinical studies are where the rubber meets the road. At the end of the day, mice aren’t people. If a drug doesn’t work in a clinical study, ask questions.
• Oxygen therapies. The idea behind this is that tumors thrive in oxygen-poor environments, so patients take oxygen-rich liquids or pills. There’s no evidence that this works, and at least one study has shown these therapies cause harm.
• Energy therapies or “healing touch.” Some believe that manipulating energy fields around the body can be curative. While many alternative medicine departments at major medical centers offer therapies such as massage and Reiki and some of these therapies may soothe patients and help them to cope with cancer treatment, the Sloan Kettering researcher found no scientific evidence that energy treatments cure cancer.
• Electrical devices. Several devices purport to interrupt cancer cells’ “bioresonance,” or “electro-magnetic oscillations” or “bio-energetic forces.” No scientific evidence proves these devices work.
Lord knows, the “slash, burn and poison” model of the current “standard of care” for most cancers is far from perfect. Yes, modern cancer treatments sometimes result in new cancers, or side effects that never go away. But it does save people. And these less-than-perfect treatments are backed by scientific evidence that they help more often than they harm.
You often hear grumblings that doctors don’t want to find a cure for cancer because then they wouldn’t have any patients. That’s nonsense. Cancer is so complex that physicians will have full waiting rooms for the foreseeable future. I think most oncologists, radiologists and surgeons would be the first to tell you that they hope for breakthroughs that will make cancer treatments less harrowing and more effective. Most would probably love to be out of a job if that meant that cancer disappeared.
Part of the problem is that science is so far from finding a solution to cancer. Of course, many Eastern and native healing traditions have things to teach us. I’ll never forget seeing surgery done on a patient whose only “anesthesia” came from acupuncture. Many major medical centers have recognized the power of “complementary therapies,” including the “Integrative Medical Service” at Sloan-Kettering that produced this study. But these medical centers look for evidence that alternative treatments actually help.
Of course, Western science doesn’t have an answer for everything. But just remember, before the scientific method—finding evidence through rigorous studies—became the norm, doctors used to wear weird, beaked masks to ward off the “vapors” of bubonic plague. They used to “bleed” patients and apply hot cups to their skin to extract “diseased humors.”
“Alternative” should not mean “completely unproven.” Ask for supporting studies before you decide to supplement the standard of care recommended by your doctor. If you’re interested in a treatment, check out PubMed and QuackWatch. And, as I’ve said before, use your common sense.