This post aims to highlight the harm done by “miracle” cures and to suggest what evidence hunters can do to tackle this. It also gives examples of when action has had an effect and the ways those selling such treatments can wriggle out of trouble.
On being diagnosed with cancer, you need to spend just a few minutes online to find a whole host of treatments promoted as safe and natural alternatives to conventional medicine. Some proponents of these even warn patients that treatments advised by their doctors could spread or cause cancer.
There is no shortage of practitioners telling vulnerable people exactly what they want to hear. For those who have been told their condition is terminal, alternative medicine may offer precious hope they thought was lost. Desperately ill patients clinging to false hope can spend their last days on a punishing yet ineffective treatment regime, alienating themselves from doctors and loved ones just when they need them the most. Those with treatable cancers may refuse surgery or give up their medicine and die.
In Australia in 2005, Penelope Dingle died of cancer after being treated by a homeopath, Francine Scrayen. According to the coroner, if Dingle had not spent a year seeking the advice of Mrs Scrayen rather than seeing a doctor, she may have survived. In 2007, in the United States, Kim Tinkham consulted live blood analysis specialist and “alkaline” diet guru, Robert O Young, who said her breast cancer was a result of dietary acids and that no chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery were necessary. Tinkham died of cancer in 2010.
Here in the UK, it is illegal to advertise cancer treatments. Those found doing so should be reported to Trading Standards or Citizens Advice. It may also be worthwhile contacting the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the Advertising Standards Authority, and anyone indirectly involved with the ad.
During the World Snooker Championship last year, Peter Ebdon had to remove an advertising logo from his waistcoat following complaints to the BBC, citing the Cancer Act. He had been advertising Gerson Therapy. In April this year, following complaints by customers, Amazon removed listings for several quack cancer treatments including apricot kernels and dried crocodile blood.
Amazon still sell apricot kernels, in addition to several other questionable treatments, such as Essiac tea. They don’t let on that they are for cancer but there is no need to. Patients will find unproven treatments such these favourably reviewed by registered cancer charities. According to Yes to Life, Essiac tea has had many startling reported successes and may be used to treat a wide range of cancers. CANCERactive tell us that Dr Francisco Contreras, of the Oasis of Hope clinic, Mexico, describes B17 as “nature’s chemotherapy”. They go on to explain that apricot kernels (available in their shop) are one of the best natural sources.
Miracle cures may also be discussed at conferences or seminars, though this can lead to problems. In March last year, Trading Standards warned organiser Dr Stephen Hopwood that the Totnes Cancer Conference could be in breach of the Cancer Act. The conference was then moved to a private address and streamed lived online. A subsequent conference went ahead after Hopwood promised that the conference would discuss treating patients with cancer, not for it, despite the fact that speakers at the conference advocate and sell a varied selection of alternative treatments.
One of them, Kevin Wright, has since been jailed for fraud and for stealing money from children’s cancer charities. Dubious products are still available through his website, Bobby’s Healthy Shop, as well as on Amazon.
Some go as far as to start a new religion. The Genesis II Church of Health and Healing promote Miracle Mineral Solution – or bleach – as a treatment for pretty much anything, including cancer. Following a Food Standards Agency warning in 2010, MMS has variously been known as Master Mineral Solution, CDS and Chlorine Dioxide. There was a further FSA warning last year and delegates are now shown how to prepare MMS at seminars held in private addresses. The next one is due to take place in London this weekend.
Of course, I can’t write a post on miracle cancer cures without mentioning Stanislaw Burzynski, who has been using “antineoplastons” to treat cancer patients since the 1970s. Burzynski has never provided reliable evidence that the treatment works but remains in business – despite a collection of lawsuits and action by the US FDA and the Texas Medical Board. Earlier this year, however, the FDA put a partial hold on the “clinical trials” loophole, meaning antineoplastons are no longer available to new patients.
It can sometimes be difficult for patients to recognise that a treatment lacks evidence to support it. While it is virtually impossible to put a stop to “miracle” cancer cures, driving them underground can chip away at their credibility and reduce the harm they can do.
Anyone making claims for cancer treatments that are not supported by evidence must be named, shamed and reported to the appropriate authorities.
There is a short version of this post on the Sense about Science website.
Ask for Evidence on miracle cancer cures Sense about Science
Inquest into Dingle death Angie Raphael, Sydney Morning Herald, 30/07/10
A horrifying breast cancer “testimonial” for “holistic” treatment: Robert O. Young responds Orac, Respectful Insolence, 06/12/10
Kim Tinkham, the woman whom Oprah made famous, dead at 53 Bart B. Van Bockstaele, Digital Journal, 08/12/10
Peter Ebdon told to remove cancer treatment logo The Telegraph, 24/04/12
Is it illegal to promote Gerson Therapy at the World Snooker Championship? Josephine Jones, 24/04/12
BBC Snooker Promoting Cancer Quackery Andy Lewis, The Quackometer, 24/04/12
Cancer quackery infests snooker Adam Jacobs, Dianthus Medical, 24/04/12
Cancer quackery still available from Amazon Josephine Jones, 17/05/13
A thoroughly dangerous charity: YesToLife promotes nonsense cancer treatments David Colquhoun, DC’s Improbable Science
Bad advice from CANCERactive Josephine Jones, 11/07/12
Totnes Cancer Conference forced underground by Trading Standards Josephine Jones, 23/03/12
Kevin Wright and the Cancer Charities that Harm Children. Andy Lewis, The Quackometer, 06/09/13
The man who encourages the sick and dying to drink industrial bleach Martin Robbins, The Guardian, 15/09/10
Bleach-based cure-all online remedies could kill, warns government Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian, 04/07/12
Burzynski: the false promise of antineoplastons Josephine Jones, 13/05/13