Cancer misinformation runs rampant on the internet. Headlines on “natural living” websites expose the alleged truth about doctors and scientists in cahoots with Big Pharma. According to the self-styled experts behind these stories, so-called studies claim that everything from baking soda to coconut oil to green juice can cure cancer.
Despite the lack of well-controlled studies in medical literature showing that “natural” or food-based therapies are effective in treating cancer, figureheads from politicians to popular bloggers buy into and promote cancer misinformation. Despite persistent and dangerous myths, cancer is not a fungus. Herbs and spices won’t prevent it; soursop, green juice and baking soda won’t cure it. Sugar doesn’t feed cancer, underwire bras don’t trap cancer-causing toxins in your tatas, and “acidic” diets don’t cause it. When it comes to cancer, thinking that food and natural measures are a good alternative to Big Pharma greed can be a deadly choice.
Cancer quackery is among the most heartbreaking unscientific rhetoric. It undermines scientists who spend years of their lives devoted to finding treatments. It minimizes the value of every life saved by science-based medicine. So-called natural beauty treatments and diet fads are all relatively benign bullshit, so we can let them slide. But so-called natural cancer treatments aren’t so benign. This propaganda leads to the deaths of those who could have otherwise survived with science-based medical treatment.
Still, I understand why these myths are so ubiquitous. Cancer is a menacing specter—if we haven’t suffered from it ourselves, chances are at least one of our loved ones has been among the million-plus Americans diagnosed with the disease each year. Add pervasive distrust of Big Pharma and science and a dash of the “natural is better” fallacy, and we have a recipe for misinformation gone awry.
At the most basic level, cancer is cells growing out of control. Despite popular myths that it’s a modern man-made disease, cancer is as natural as a tornado in Kansas, and it is caused by genetic mutations. When the genomes in our cells function properly, they tell our cells when to multiply and prosper, when not to grow, and when to kick the bucket. Other genes code for proteins that repair damage to DNA.
Our DNA is constantly replicating itself; every time a cell divides it has to copy three billion characters. Errors that aren’t corrected during cell division are known as mutations, and these mutations accumulate as we age. This happens regularly, and usually doesn’t cause major problems. Sometimes a mutation will eventually cause diseases including cancer when combined with new mutations in subsequent cell divisions. Certain people are born with mutations inherited from one of our parents, drastically increasing our risk of developing cancer (like Angelina Jolie’s BRCA mutation). If certain genetic loci eventually hit a “perfect storm” of mutations, cells will begin to grow out of control and boom, cancer.
The earliest description of cancer was discovered on a papyrus in Egypt and dates back to 3000 B.C. There is evidence of cancer in mummified human remains. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, is credited with the origin of the word, having used “carcinos” and “carcinoma” to describe tumors. Unless ancient Egyptians were mired in Big Pharma conspiracies or caused their own cancer with toxins, it’s safe to say that cancer is an inherent part of human life. Modern, man-made disease? I don’t think so.
Further, cancers are not one umbrella malady. The heterogeneity of cancer cells within even one patient or one tumor is astounding, meaning the mutations in one part of a tumor will vary from those in another part. Many cancers are primarily due to bad luck and are not preventable, though this doesn’t stop purveyors of cancer myths from implying that eating the right foods or avoiding alleged toxins can keep the disease at bay or cure it.
Fraud vs. fact
While we do have control of certain aspects of our health, it’s misleading to imply that one’s choices in diet dictate whether or not they get or survive cancer. Depending on the situation, sometimes lifestyle does contribute to a cancer diagnosis, though much of the time genetics and bad luck are the main culprits. The big cancer-causing lifestyle and environmental factors are obesity, drinking alcohol, tobacco use, sun and radon gas exposure, certain infectious agents like HPV, and environmental pollutants.
Factors that don’t cause cancer include genetically engineered foods, vaccines, sugar, and caramel coloring in lattes. Things that don’t prevent or treat cancer include organic foods, herbal remedies, coconut oil, coffee enemas, kale, turmeric, and green juice. Yes, cancers are immeasurably more complex than I’ve described them here and yes, healthy diet and lifestyle are important. But what experts deem healthy comes from the weight of scientific evidence. What alternative medicine shills deem “healthy” comes from an alluring fairy tale.
Let’s take BRCA mutations and breast cancer. Experts advise early screening, “prophylactic” (preventative) removal of breast and or ovary tissue, or chemoprevention drugs to reduce cancer risk. Natural health proponents, on the other hand suggest “preventing cancer naturally,” with “the best foods on the planet,” including grapes and peanuts. The expert recommendations are evidence-based, whereas the Green Med Infos and Food Babes of the world? Their advice usually has roots in lone, cherry-picked scientific studies that are grossly misinterpreted, turning molehill results into mountains of false hope. Again, just because a compound found in a certain fruit or nut interacts favorably with cells in vitro doesn’t mean that eating lots of grapes will prevent cancer if you have a deleterious mutation.
Alternative medicine hawkers almost always have something to sell, even as they demonize Big Pharma for greed. Articles cloaked in seemingly scientific terms are nothing more than convincing drivel disguised as expertise. Sites like Natural News, Eden Prescription, and Truth About Cancer boast that certain herbs or fruits “kill cancer cells in vitro!!!” Just because something kills cancer cells in vitro, meaning in a petri dish or test tube in a lab setting, doesn’t mean it will do the same in a living organism’s body (in vivo). It’s actually not that hard to kill cancer cells in a dish. It is quite challenging to do the same in a living breathing person, without harming his healthy cells.
“Natural” treatments that kill
Twice as many people are surviving cancer today than in 1992. According to National Cancer Institute data, cancer deaths fell by 22 percent from 1990 to 2011. This is largely because of advances in DNA sequencing technologies and genomic medicine, and the hard work of scientists at government agencies, academia, and private sector. We’re now in the infant stages of treating cancer patients based on the specific mutations unique to their cancers, and these breakthroughs are tremendously promising.
When asked whether cancer will be a far less dire sentence for my children’s children than for millennials like me, Mayo Clinic cancer researcher and Technology Assessment Committee Chairman Dr. David I. Smith told me, “You don’t even have to go out as far as your children’s children. As a matter of fact, and I’m a generation and a half back from you, my generation needs to hold on a little longer. For your children? We’re going to have such levels of sophistication. It moves so quickly.”
Sophistication indeed. Treatment is different from one breast cancer patient to another, from one colon cancer patient to the next. To think that people are raking in money promoting foods, herbs, and oils to prevent and cure cancer would be laughable if it weren’t so damn tragic.
But it happens. Simultaneously a victim and a perpetrator of cancer quackery, Jess Ainscough, an Australian blogger, model, and fashion writer, died earlier this year at the age of 30. She suffered from epithelioid sarcoma, an aggressive and rare form of cancer that presented as tumor masses in her arm and shoulder. She was diagnosed with this cancer at age 22. After unsuccessful chemotherapy, doctors advised amputation of her left arm and shoulder.
Instead Ainscough embraced the Gerson Protocol, which involves consuming the juice of over twenty pounds of fruits and veggies, downing castor oil, and taking up to five coffee enemas on a daily basis. She branded herself the “Wellness Warrior,” claiming that she was healing naturally and encouraged others to do the same. The American Cancer Society condemns the Gerson Protocol as ineffective and even harmful, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it. Still, Ainscough gained legions of fans worldwide who followed her “natural” approach to the disease and cheered on her recovery.
But Ainscough did not recover. She died, and so did her mother, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2011. Sharyn Ainscough also pursued the Gerson Protocol as treatment for her cancer. She died in October 2013. Doctors say this was Sharyn’s expected prognosis without recommended medical treatment.
Ainscough’s story could have ended differently. Though she and her supporters argued that her cancer was incurable, experts disagree. Well-known surgical oncologist and blogger David Gorski wrote, “Jess Ainscough had a shot, one good shot. That’s usually the case for most cancers; your first shot is your best shot, and we as cancer doctors need to make it count.” While Ainscough’s only hope to extend her life was an amputation that would have left her with one arm, most cancer patients’ science-based treatments aren’t quite as horrific. Though combinations of chemotherapy and radiation are far from pleasant, they pale in comparison to life without a limb.
Yet, Ainscough encouraged cancer patients with more promising prognoses than her own to heal using ineffective methods, potentially putting them in harm’s way. She was also making a tidy profit on this line of advice, turning her belief system into a business. While kale and coffee enemas demonstrably will not cure cancer, Ainscough hid her deteriorating condition from her adoring fans. Though she eventually admitted that Gerson therapy wasn’t working, the damage had already been done. Patients with far better odds than her own lost precious time during which mainstream treatment could have helped. Though it’s hard to quantify how many people Ainscough’s false hope doomed, even one death from rejecting mainstream treatment is one life too many.
“Natural” treatments that work
Mother Nature sometimes does offer cancer treatments, but they don’t come in the form of herbal supplements and powders from questionable online dispensaries.
When something “natural” has cancer fighting properties, like the drug Taxol, which is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, it’s not the “natural cure Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about.” Scientists systematically study the naturally occurring compound over years and even decades, and sometimes it can be developed into a lifesaving drug.
As Dr. Smith told me about distrust of scientists, “If there were cures for cancer, we’d be seeing them. It’s not like we have something that we don’t want to make available to people.” Though alternative medicine shills would like you to believe you can simply consume a dietary supplement to naturally fight or prevent cancer, it just doesn’t work that way. Indeed, researchers are doing their best and we should cheer them on. The real villains are those telling you that fruit pills will cure cancer. Anyone who says mainstream medicine is a conspiracy? I’ll hand you a tinfoil hat and send you on your way.
Kavin Senapathy is a mom of two, a freelance writer, and a science popularizer. Her passion is debunking unscientific media misinformation, often known as “woo.”
Her regular column about unscientific gaffes in the media can be found under hashtag #KavinCantEven. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Illustration by Jim Cooke