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Cancer And The Snake Oil Industry

17/04/2017 21:45 BST | Updated 17/04/2017 21:45 BST
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Vitamin B17, frankincense, apricot seeds, blue scorpion tail extract, moringa, turmeric, essiac tea. These are among the hundreds of alleged cancer killing cures that will be unfamiliar to most people, but not for those of us who are cancer patients. Information about these products typically emerges from online discussion boards or closed Facebook chatrooms. Sometimes concerned friends inundate you with information about such miracle cancer cures. For cancer patients, who are overwhelmed with the traditional treatments for cancer, these alternative cures can offer a sign of hope. However appealing, we must be aware about the dangerous implications of natural cancer cures.

All cancer patients undergo a series of lengthy and tedious treatments options, typically involving chemotherapy as a starting point. Other cancer treatments include radiotherapy, radiofrequency ablation, and operations. These treatments are tedious and most cancer patients suffer from painful side effects. For most patients, the benefits of traditional medicine approaches to cancer are not very clear. In my case, I have been quite lucky that I have a very positive experience from chemotherapy, but I am very much the exception. Viewed in this light, the appeal for an alternative natural cure is quite appealing. Certainly, a cocktail of lemon water sweetened with manuka honey and bee pollen is far more enticing than an infusion of Irinotecan. Moreover, cancer patients feel that natural cures are beneficial insofar as they allow the cancer patient to take control over the treatment of their own illness.

The more problematic --in my opinion, actually criminally dangerous-- element of natural health cures is the natural health cancer industry. Although natural health cures will have their advocates, the natural health cancer industry is an entirely different entity. Every cancer patient is likely to have come across a number of videos relating to non-traditional medicine cancer cures. The general premise of these videos is that oncologists are puppets of the pharmaceutical industry. According to this narrative, traditional medicine cancer treatments are, at best, ineffective or, in the worst of cases, they actually cause the spread of cancer. Some go so far as to argue that people who have found a cancer cure have been killed under mysterious circumstances, hinting heavily that the pharmaceutical industry is the culprit. These videos also offer a dystopian portrait of the traditional medicine cancer treatments. Sadly, for many cancer patients, these portraits do not differ much from their own experiences. Oftentimes, a natural health cure "doctor" will claim that everything that a cancer patient has been told about cancer by their oncologist is wrong. These "doctors" will then offer some sort of miraculous cancer cure, typically a juice cocktail or some vitamin protocol. These snake oil salesmen offer no concrete scientific evidence for their extraordinary claims. Normally, the only evidence offered by these "doctors" are testimonials, allegedly from cancer patients who claim to have been cured by these non-traditional treatments. Individually, these "cures" are unlikely to harm a cancer patient. The real damage comes when these snake oil doctors then encourage cancer patients to forego traditional medicine treatment for these purported cures.

The snake oil cancer industry, in my opinion, is one of the most dangerous forces working against the interests of cancer patients. However, it is also clear to me that the appeal for natural cures also is reinforced by the reluctance of traditional medicine and the pharmaceutical industry to embrace them. In an era where expertise is viewed with suspicion --even downright hostility-- it is no surprise then that the validity of traditional cancer cures, supported by clinical trials, is called into question. Scientific expertise in oncology has not been very good at showing the benefits of specific cancer treatments; instead the focus is on the risks and the side effects. In my view, practitioners of traditional medicine should also be more receptive to advances in nutritional science. These advances include support for the healing properties of natural products, whether to ease some of the symptoms of cancer or the cancer treatments themselves. Natural products can easily supplement traditional cancer treatment in order to make the cancer patient's experience more tolerable. For instance, I tend to drink ginger tea when I feel nauseous or when I have an upset stomach. I also love drinking beetroot and I think that it has a beneficial effect on my health by regenerating my red blood cells. At the very least, natural health cures can improve a cancer patient's wellbeing through improved nutrition. We are all entitled to our own beliefs, even though they may be nonsense. At the end of the day, though, the snake oil cancer industry is solely to blame for preying upon a population that is inherently vulnerable. As a cancer patient, I am really frustrated to see people who fall for the obvious quackery that the snake oil industry represents. But then again, we make our own choices.