The time when I lose patience with quacks is when they make unjustified claims about serious diseases. Giving false hope to the desperate (often at a high price) is plain wicked. If the patient stops more effective treatment, it’s homicide. Homeopaths have been jailed for that. Sometimes it’s a result of wishful thinking. Sometimes it’s to make money. The latter is morally more despicable. Both are culpable.
One example was the Totnes (aka Narnia) to “offer real alternatives to the conventional approach to cancer health care“.
Another case, the Dove Clinic, was investigated in the Sunday Times, by Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Justin Stoneman: Clinics mislead patients over cancer ‘cure‘.
There is yet another cancer conference, Back2Health, coming up in April (remember that "integrative", in this context, is a euphemism for quackery).
The speakers are listed on the left, as they were when I first noticed the conference in December 2012. On the right are the speakers as of February 2013,
Spot the difference
18 December 2012
28 February 2013
Yes, the one respectable oncologist on the programme, Robert Thomas, has withdrawn from the meeting.
I came across Robert Thomas because it was pointed out to me that he spoke at a meeting of YesToLife, an organisation that advocates all sorts of treatments that are unsupported by evidence. That seemed like an odd thing for a respectable oncologist to be doing, so I wrote to him, to point out some of the bizarre beliefs of his fellow speakers. Most are familiar names in made-up medicine, but probably not widely known among real oncologists.
Professor Thomas seemed unaware of this because he told me
"Thank you for your email and pointing out the vitamin C issues which of course, as you say has no scientific basis and should be outlawed along with many other practices."
Nevertheless he thought it was too late to pull out of the YesToLife meeting, so went ahead.
After this Robert Thomas wrote to me again (18 December 2012) to ask for advice about another conference he’d been invited to speak at, the Back2health event. Again he seemed unaware of the reputations of his fellow speakers, just about all of whom have a track record of advocating treatments for which there is no good evidence. Many of them are purveyors of false hope, often at a high price. I’ll deal with only three of them.
Chris Woollams of CancerActive is also there. As readers of this blog will know, I accept he is an honest man and I do feel a great deal of sympathy for him having lost his daughter. This doesn’t mean I am any closer to accepting his views on cancer treatment.
Next to Thomas’s picture is Barbara Wren. She was secretly filmed by the BBC claiming "to have cured thyroid cancer by applying external compresses, half an hour with castor oil and half an hour with your own urine". You can’t get much barmier than that.
Then there is a nurse, Patricia Peat, who runs a private "integrative" cancer consultancy, Cancer Options. She’s a prominent supporter of YesToLife which, since at least February 8th 2013, has been promoting a video, "Cancer is Curable Now", which makes totally irresponsible claims (and is illegal in the UK under the Cancer Act, 1939). Among other baseless treatments she has advocated high dose Vitamin C.
“The first of these people is the proprietor of Cancer Options. Cancer Options is a private consultancy offering advice to cancer patients. It is run by Patricia Peat who is a qualified nurse. My dad went to see her and she told him the good news, if he followed her advice he could be tumour free in 3 to 4 years. She advised him to have intravenous vitamin C, to have oxygen therapy, heat therapy and to take a myriad of supplements.”
I have heard that the cost of these useless recommendations over a three months would have been £4,640, plus the considerable cost of moving to Brighton, to the Vision of Hope hospital. That includes, for example, a telephone consultation (£175), supplement pills (£400) and intravenous vitamin C (£3000). There is no good evidence that any of these would help the patient. Not only would this have destituted his family and taken the patient away from them: it would also have made his last days an unnecessary misery. For Christmas he would have been condemned to a vegan diet, no wheat, sugar or alcohol, and to live on five glasses of raw juice and two jars of sprouts a day (see "Would you kick a dying man" for a real life experience).
Patricia Peat appears prominently on another web site too, Self Help Cancer. There she’s partnered by Dr Chris Etheridge (an ex biochemist, turned herbalist, with no medical qualifications). On that site you’ll find every kind of barminess endorsed. It even takes seriously the notorious Burzynski clinic about which so much has been written, both here and in the USA.
Recommending a bit of foot massage or reiki as a way to relax distraught patients is harmless enough if you like that sort of thing. Recommending you to ignore real doctors is quite another. Patricia Peat is on record as saying (my emphasis).
"Also detoxification is as important as what goes in – the rapid removal of toxins from the body would be massively beneficial in reducing the side effects. If someone is on chemotherapy, its very important to get any herbal preparations checked out by a qualified practitioner, to make sure there are no interactions, with the chemotherapy. A lot of nutritional and herbal supplements are very strong, and it is dangerous to suppose that because they are natural, they can do no harm. Probably the worst person to ask about this is your oncologist "
There is, of course, no reason to think that "detoxification" is anything other than a figment of the imagination. There is no reason to think that (never-named) toxins are important, and no reason to think that the procedures get rid of anything.
If you want sound advice about diet, go to somewhere like the American Cancer Society. There you will find that most of the things that quack nutritionists love to sell you just don’t work. The ACS asks "Will a vitamin a day keep cancer away?". Their answer is
"Can popping vitamin pills prevent cancer? The simple answer is no, based on what we know so far. In fact, some vitamin supplements have even shown harm."
The journalist, John Diamond, described movingly the way that the alternative industry moved in on him when it became known that he had cancer. His book, Snake Oil and Other Preoccupations was never finished before he died. These extracts from the foreword to the book, by Richard Dawkins, sum it up.
"When the pathologist has read the runes; when the oracles of X-ray, CT scan and biopsy have spoken and hope is guttering low; when the surgeon enters the room accompanied by ‘a tallish man … looking embarrassed … in hood and gown with a scythe over his shoulder’, it is then that the ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ vultures start circling. This is their moment. This is where they come into their own, for there’s money in hope: the more desperate the hope, the richer the pickings. And. to be fair, many pushers of dishonest remedies are motivated by an honest desire to help. Their persistent importunings of the gravely ill, their intrusively urgent offers of pills and potions, have a sincerity that rises above the financial greed of the quacks they promote. "
"They are targets that deserve to be hit hard, targets whose neutralisation would leave the world a better place: cynical charlatans (or honest foolish dreamers) who prey on gullible unfortunates. And the best part is that although this gallant man is dead, his guns are not silenced"
Shortly before he died, John Diamond said something that I think is one of the most perceptive comments that I’ve ever read. Some of the blame for the rise of the profitable alternative industry lies with the hype of real medicine. It’s worth quoting at length.
"But we expected more. Hell, we’d been promised more. Just as we’d learned, rightly, to expect that the political system could be arranged to provide a roof over the head and food in the stomach of all of us, so, we believed, could the medical system be arranged to give us all health and happiness. It was our right, dammit.
And the medical establishment, flattered by all those pieces in the popular press describing the latest miracle cure which was just about —always just about — to arrive at the local surgery, joined in with the celebrations and connived with the scam. Indeed, if the boom in alternative medicine is anybody’s fault it’s that of orthodox medicine. It was the orthodoxy -helped by the media and our own vanity – which allowed us to believe that we could all be healthy and happy, that there was a pill for every problem and that if we died too early or too painfully it was an act of some agency other than capricious old God. The orthodoxy allowed us to expect
And the elsewhere we looked to was the alternative practitioners. They were only too willing to take our custom . . ."
I have no way of knowing whether the people at this conference are "cynical charlatans" or "honest foolish dreamers". I impute no motives. But I can say that their treatments are very expensive and for the most part they don’t work.
There is an interesting question about the extent to which charities like YesToLife function as charities, and the extent to which they act as agencies that channel desperate patients into the hands of private hucksters. I don’t pretend to know tha answer. I’d like to.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
1 April 2013. The Times contacted me shortly after this came out, about some of the (illegal) nonsense to be found on sale at Amazon. One of their journalists, Kat Lay, did a good write-up, and they contacted the MHRA and stirred it into action. [download pdf].
5 April 2013. I quoted some of Patricia Peat’s views on diet from a page on Woollams’ blog. I notice that the copyright conditions on that page changed
" This content may be copied, in full or in part", has been changed to " No content may be reproduced, in whole or in part".
It’s curious that there should be an attempt to ban the reproduction of content, of which he authors are presumably proud, and which appears on a public web site. Of course it is also baseless in law, because copyright law has always allowed reproduction of parts of any document for the purposes of fair comment or in the public interest.
20 May 2012
In the USA, the first amendment allows the most outrageous claims to be made. But when they do decide the law has been broken, they do something about it. Their law enforcement is not as pathetically impotent as in the UK.
A Dr Christine Donald treated patients with cancer with an expensive herbal concoction, from her Wellness Clinic in San Fernando Valley. She promised 60 – 80% success rate. she was trusted because she was also a Pentecostal minister.
She was convicted of four counts of mail and wire fraud, six counts of tax evasion and one count of witness tampering she was found guilty of in September 2011
She was sentenced to 14 years in jail and a fine of $1.2 million.
One wonders why that never happens in the UK
26 May 2013 I noticed another incredible assertion by Patricia Peat.
“One could be forgiven for thinking how does anyone manage to die from cancer when the answers to curing it are actually so simplistic and one dimensional.”
So that’s solved, then.
10 June 2013.
I have just come across a good source of information about all sorts of alternative cancer treatments. "CAM-Cancer" was originally funded by the European Commission (EC) within the Framework 5 Programme, it is now hosted by the National Information Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NIFAB) at the University of Tromsø, Norway.