Dubious approaches to curing cancer

You've no doubt heard the story, whether from a book, news report, or a friend or family member. It's an inspiring tale, of overcoming impossible odds in the face of widespread doubt and haunting despair. Of fighting to live and refusing to die. Of uncovering a wonderful secret, a secret that must be shared.

Cancer is a terrible disease, a formidable wall that experience and evidence tell us is arduous and painstaking to surmount. This bleak situation leads many to unevidenced treatments, essentially seeking a path around the wall rather than climbing directly over it. Radiant and hopeful, the path is paved with wholesome "natural" treatments like cleanse diets, acupuncture, meditation, and homeopathy. Harsh "unnatural" treatments like chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, and immunotherapy are nowhere to be seen.

Dr. Ian Gawler supposedly cured his terminal bone cancer with coffee enemas, a vegetarian diet, and meditation. Belle Gibson claimed to cure her brain, spleen, uterus, kidney (and many other) cancers via exercise, fruits, vegetables, colonic irrigations, and a variety of other unproven remedies. Ann Cameron insisted that she halted her stage four cancer with "carrot juice, nothing else."

So how did these individuals do it? How did they beat their cancers with remedies that defy reason and evidence? Well, there's a simple explanation. They didn't.

The best evidence available tells us that cancer patients who elect only alternative therapies die in far greater numbers than those using tried and tested treatments. Breast cancer patients are five times more likely to die. Colorectal cancer patients are four times more likely to die. Lung cancer patients are twice as likely to die.

OK, but maybe people like Gawler, Gibson, and Cameron beat the odds? Maybe they discovered the secret?

That's highly unlikely. More likely, as oncologist David Gorski discussed at the blog Science-Based Medicine, is that they received standard treatments and disregarded their effectiveness, were lucky enough to have nonaggressive tumors, or were misdiagnosed with cancer altogether.

Misdiagnoses are particularly problematic, as cancer false-positives are extremely common. One randomized, controlled trial found that the cumulative risk of a false-positive result was 36.7 percent for men and 26.2 percent for women after four cancer screens. Another study found that among 1,087 participants who had been screened for prostate, lung, colorectal, or ovarian cancer, 43 percent experienced at least one false-positive.

Now, let's return to the three anecdotes described earlier. The cancer Ian Gawler "cured" with alternative remedies was never actually confirmed by a biopsy, and it's more likely that his symptoms were the result of tuberculosis, which he acknowledged that he was diagnosed with. Belle Gibson later admitted that she never actually had cancer and was misdiagnosed by a quack doctor. Ann Cameron had undergone surgery for colon cancer, and the tumors that metastasized in the lymph nodes of her chest may have been misdiagnosed or nonaggressive.

Gawler, Gibson, and Cameron were lucky. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for genuine cancer patients who might decide to try the unproven treatments they tout. Gibson and Gawler made bucketloads of money selling false hope, and in the process likely contributed to the deaths of real people who were reaching for a lifeline.

The reality is that every scientist would prefer to treat cancer with carrot juice rather than radiation. But much to their dismay, carrot juice doesn't work. Radiation does.

There's another side to these tales of alternative cancer cures that doesn't get told too often. They are the stories of people who tried them and died.

None may be more tragic than that of Jessica Ainscough. The bright young Australian styled herself the Wellness Warrior and amassed a large online following by refusing to amputate her arm and instead advocating Gerson therapy (described on its website gerson.org as "a natural treatment that activates the body's extraordinary ability to heal itself through an organic, plant-based diet, raw juices, coffee enemas and natural supplements") when her epithelioid sarcoma (a rare soft-tissue sarcoma usually occurring in 20-to 39-year-olds that involves the upper extremities 60 percent of the time) returned in 2010.

Ainscough's mother Sharyn followed her daughter's lead with Gerson therapy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Sharyn passed away in 2013. Ainscough died two years later.

Editorial on 02/04/2018