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Woo, cancer, and human Fallacy.

August 25, 2010

I have a friend that has ovarian cancer. She was diagnosed a little over 2 years ago, but the doctors hadn’t been looking for it. She was only 23, with no family history of cancer, and then it showed up on a CT scan the doctors did when she had abdominal pain. After two and a half years of chemo, surgeries to remove first one ovary, then the other, then finally her entire uterus, the cancer won’t go away. It’s aggressive, and she has tumors everywhere, including two now in her esophagus that make it hard for her to breathe. A few weeks ago, she finished her last round of chemotherapy, a last ditch effort to poison her to the brink of death, in hopes that the cancer would die before she did. There’s nothing more the doctors can do, she’s gone to the limit of what science-based medicine can do.

So she looked for alternatives, and found Dr. Forsythe. At his clinic, he purports to treat cancer with dietary changes, supplements, and all manner of “wholistic techniques:”

Dr. Forsythe’s style in conquering cancer focuses on respect for the natural healing mechanism of the body and its stressors. We discover your unique environmental challenges brought about by poor life style choices including; dietary indiscretions, lack of sleep, excessive stress, decreased exercise, environmental toxins, lack of supplementation and detoxification, insufficient enzymes, and hormonal imbalances.  Integrative medical therapies that are aiding the immune system to give the body an opportunity to restore itself back to optimal health.

This all sounds pretty great, but does it actually work? If you listen to the testimonials on the site, youtube videos of people who are thrilled with their treatments, you might be compelled to say that it does. These people feel better, they are happy. My friend, after being there for two weeks and getting “detoxed” from all the chemotherapeutics, feels great. She feels stronger than she has in years.

But if we look at these patients six months or a year after their treatment, what are their survival rates? It’s no surprise that chemotherapy makes you feel like shit. It’s poison. But it’s poison chosen for a purpose, and we know it works. Getting those chemicals out of your system are undoubtably going to make you feel better, but improving emotional well-being is not the same thing as treating a disease. Diet changes, exercise regimens, and everything down to the soothing voices used by the people running the clinic and the positive attitudes of the people around you are going to make you feel better.

But what about the cancer they’re trying to treat? Six months out, how are the people at this clinic doing relative to people who don’t go? The truth is, we have no way of knowing. One thing I know for sure is that if my friend survives, this clinic will get the credit. Never mind the hours of surgeries and month after month of science-based medicine. That made her feel like crap, and she still has cancer. She probably would have died a year ago without those interventions, but it’s hard to argue that the year was worth it considering the pain she was in. The statistics on survival rates don’t mean much if you’re on the losing end.

And if she doesn’t get better, will the clinic get the blame? I doubt it. They’ll probably say she waited too long, or had too much chemo, or make some other excuse for why the treatment didn’t work for her. The thing that struck me about all the testimonials I watched (which wasn’t many, I admit), was that all of them already had traditional medical interventions. The guy in the very first video had a tumor the size of a golfball removed from his brain by a surgeon, then had months of chemo and radiation therapy. According to him, he’s cancer free now because of the supplements and meds given to him by Dr. Forsythe after all of that. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. If the strategies used at this clinic were truly effective – by which I mean actually treating cancer as opposed to just making patients feel good – I’m sure that oncologists world-wide would be clamoring to use his methods. You might argue it’s because scientists haven’t actually looked at the results. I’d love to see a meta-analysis looking out outcomes of people from his clinic vs those that received only traditional medicine, but I’m not holding my breath.

As a scientist, I find this type of place incredibly troubling, but I can’t say any of this to my friend. She’s beyond the help of traditional medicine now, and nothing I say will change that. Even if this clinic does nothing but make her feel better, I think it’s money well spent. And if she gets better, as I hope she will, I won’t really care who gets the credit.

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