Alternative medicine and cancer survival

I often wonder just how much I annoy people when the topic of alternative medicine (alt med) comes up. In general, if someone says something I don’t agree with, I let it slide. When it comes to alt med, however, I don’t seem to have the same restraint. It’s unfortunate really, as it comes up surprisingly often, and my position comes across as pretty extreme.

People ask “What’s the harm?”, and point out that “Even if it doesn’t do anything, people feel better having tried it”. I empathise with this position, but completely disagree. The point I try to make is that if we accept the use of alt med, we legitimize it, making people more likely to choose it over conventional medicine.

Alt med banner smaller

The focus of this post is cancer patients who put all their trust in alt med. While it’s true that most people use alt med alongside real medicine, the popularity of, and belief in, the alt med movement means that it is inevitable that some people will ignore mainstream medicine in favour of alternatives.

Unfortunately this does happen, and it happens regularly enough for us to study it. A few months ago, researchers from Yale published a paper looking into the outcomes for cancer patients who chose alt med over conventional treatment.

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Eggs, cancer, and motivated reasoning

The following headline in the The Daily Express caught my attention this week:

“Ovarian cancer – could EGGS be the cause of disease? Vegan charity research REVEALED”

Express.co.uk 14th March 2017

The article goes on to explain that a Bristol based charity called Viva! Health has urged consumers not to eat eggs, claiming that one egg a week increases cancer risk by up to 70%. According to their own website, Viva! Health is a science-based health and nutrition charity, and being “science-based” you would expect them to have sufficient evidence to make a claim as eye-catching as the one above. So is this the case?food-eggs

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What happens when we don’t publish clinical trials

The last blog I posted emphasised the importance of publishing all clinical trials. The story of Lorcainide is a stark warning of what happens when we don’t.

In 1980 a cardiologist in Nottingham named Alan Cowley carried out a small clinical trial of a drug called Lorcainide. It was known at the time that heart attacks could cause irregular heartbeats in patients (known as arrhythmia), and these arrhythmias often lead to early death. Lorcainide had been shown to suppress arrhythmia, so it made sense that patients who came to hospital with a heart attack should be treated with the drug. Cowley and his colleagues carried out a small trial with 95 patients, and tested them to see whether they were getting more or fewer arrhythmias. The drug worked, lowering the frequency of serious arrhythmia.

The doctors noticed something else however. Of the 48 patients on the drug, 9 had died, compared to only 1 patient on the placebo. This was a very small trial, so the doctors weren’t overly alarmed. It’s not surprising that 10 patients died in the study; these are patients who are presenting with heart attacks after all. It was just worrying that there was such an imbalance between the groups. The doctors chalked it up to bad luck, and viewed their trial as a success.

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Problems with clinical trials

Clinical trials are at the heart of our progress in medicine. If we have a new therapy, clinical trials tell us whether it is better than the current one. They measure outcomes, but also look out for side effects and unexpected consequences of taking the therapy. They are absolutely essential to our progress, and it is vital that they are carried out properly and transparently. Continue reading

Alternative medicine as a placebo

I recently wrote a post about the decision by NICE to no longer recommend acupuncture for lower back pain. This decision was made because, like most alternative medicine, acupuncture hasn’t been shown to work any better than a placebo. However, plenty of people use and get benefit from such treatments. This raises an interesting question: is there a place for complementary and alternative medicine (as a placebo) in the clinic? Continue reading

Can Wi-Fi make you sick?

A French court recently awarded a disability grant to a woman claiming to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Sufferers define this as an illness caused by the radiation given out by everyday objects (Wi-Fi routers, mobile phones and power lines, for example), resulting in a wide range of non-specific symptoms, including headaches, fatigue and irregular heartbeats. There have been several lawsuits in the US from people claiming that their health has been affected by Wi-Fi (unsuccessful so far), and just this week in Massachusetts parents have sued a school, claiming that the Wi-Fi there made their son ill. Continue reading