A cancer diagnosis is an awful thing. Cancer isn’t simply devastating news for the patient – its consequences ripple through groups of family and friends spreading fear and uncertainty of what the future will bring. While cancer research and treatment has come a huge way since the earlier part of this century, many types of cancer are still largely deadly. It is therefore not completely irrational for people to look for solutions to their health problems outside the boundaries of conventional medicine. People in stressful and desperate situations tend to cling at whatever hope is sent their way, no matter how little scientific basis the hope might have. What’s more, scientific literacy in western countries still leaves a lot to be desired, which leaves cancer patients and their family even more vulnerable to all sorts of non-scientific ideas when it comes to options for treatment.
However, the real problem with “alternative medicine” is that almost by definition it has not been thoroughly tested for efficacy and safety. Therefore, in most cases nobody can prove it doesn’t work. While of course proving a negative goes against all good sense and logic, this is the sort of argument that is consistently pushed by those profiting from alternative medicine and that can cut through to those in a desperate situation. The reason why alternative medicine is hardly ever tested in its own right is simply that there is not enough evidence to justify endangering patient’s lives. While anyone can sell “alternative treatments” promising they will work, in order for these “alternatives” to become “mainstream” medicine they need to go through a rigorous process of testing. Before these treatments can even be trialed in the clinic, however, experts need to come up with a wealth of data suggesting that giving this treatment to patients will not only not be poisonous, but has a greater-than-nothing chance of working. Any patient that is receiving experimental treatment, alternative or otherwise, is essentially gambling their life on the chance that the treatment will work. In order for any treatment to be considered for clinical trials, it needs to have shown its safety and efficacy in a variety of animal models, as well as in a variety of laboratory tests using cultured cancer cells. Moreover, we need to have at least a primitive understanding of the molecular mechanism through which the treatment is working. So far, “alternative treatments” have failed to provide even a fraction of this data, which means it is impossible to test them on patients.
However, this does not mean that we cannot prove these treatments do not work. A recent study from Yale University has compared patients who received “mainstream” treatment for a variety of cancers, including colon and breast cancer, with patients who went against medical advice and only sought treatment through an “alternative” route. Perhaps unsurprisingly, patients seeking “alternative” treatment were over two-hundred and fifty-percent more likely to die of their disease than those who put their faith in scientifically-tested medicine. Moreover, when only looking at breast cancer patients, those seeking “alternative” treatment were over five times more likely to die of their disease than those who undertook “mainstream” treatment. The heartbreaking fact is, none of those patients and none of their families understood at the time that they were about to slash their chances of survival five-fold. The maddening fact is, it is most likely that somebody profited off their misplaced trust and it is very unlikely they will ever be prosecuted for it.
Unfortunately, those who profit from the desperation of others are not on an even playing field with doctors, nurses and scientists discussing real options for treatment. Science is a very dissatisfying thing. There are no miracle cures, only statistically significant increases in mean survival. A doctor prescribing a revolutionary cancer drugs cannot ethically promise that the patient will be cured. A scientist discussing a promising new agent cannot guarantee it will work, only explain why it is more likely than not that it will have a positive impact on the survival of what is probably a subset of patients. This sounds very flimsy and dissatisfying and not as reassuring as the clear cut guarantees of “alternative medicine” peddlers. But all that empty-sounding science is phrased in such a disheartening way because it’s true. Truth is, after all, the most reassuring of all promises. Working with the public and educating patients so that more and more people understand the choices they make is clearly becoming as important as providing them with real, safe and effective treatment options.