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Examining Alternative Medicine

By Heather Millar

alternative medicine

Think you’ve got a beat on a sure-fire cancer cure? Think again, says Dr. Paul A. Offit, the chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Offit has just published a new book, Do You Believe in Magic?: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.

Dr. Offit, a pediatrician and expert on infectious diseases and vaccines, has taken on popular ideas about medicine before. In 2008, he wrote Autism’s False Prophets, questioning the idea that vaccinations cause autism, or that vaccinations cause infections. That annoyed some people so much that Dr. Offit received death threats.

This new book is likely to upset even more people. He’s taking on all of alternative medicine, the whole multi-billion dollar empire, from acupuncture to vitamins to electric gizmos to myriad supposed cancer cures like shark cartilage or laetrile or chelation therapy. Dr. Offit stands on the side of peer-reviewed formal medicine, and medicines, that have been proven effective in impartial clinical trials. That doesn’t mean that the massage, or chiropractic or stress-reduction meditation or whatever might not help, only that it’s unproven.

But in some cases, placing all your faith in alternatives may even be dangerous: Dr. Offit describes the case of a 10-year-old with Hodgkin’s disease whose parents took him to Jamaica for treatments with laetrile, a drug made from apricot pits. For years, many have thought that laetrile was a more “natural” cancer treatment. Yet studies have repeatedly proven laetrile ineffective against cancer. The boy died.

Dr. Offit says that in some cases, alternative therapies work because people believe in them so wholeheartedly. He devotes a whole section to the ways that the human mind can create a “placebo effect.” Let’s say you believe a supplement is helping your chemo nausea. Maybe it works because you believe in its power, the thinking goes, just as in clinical trials some people report benefit from “placebo” sugar pills.

My own gut feeling is that complementary therapies probably work best in treating the side effects of cancer treatment: muscle tension, neuropathy, anxiety, bone pain and the like. As imperfect as mainstream cancer treatment is, I would never, ever, trust my life to something like “cell therapy,” in which tissue from the embryos of sheep or cows is injected into patients, or “DMSO,” an industrial solvent that’s a by-product of making paper, or “urotherapy,” using a patient’s own urine to treat cancer. To me, those sorts of treatments seem even more goofily medieval than chemotherapy.

I’m sure that this modest post will also garner angry comments, but please, please fellow cancer patients, look for actual science before you decide to chuck modern medicine in favor of a vitamin, a plant extract or some other supposed cure. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has a really comprehensive listing of alternative treatments and the evidence, or lack of evidence, that they might work. When the ACS says that a treatment has not been proven to work, it cites scientific papers to support that.

Dr. Offit put it best, I think, when he quoted a colleague, “There’s a word for alternative medicines that work. It’s called medicine.”

 

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