Is Mario Ambrosini, the IFP MP with stage four lung cancer, right when he says that cancer research of the past 120 years has “brought no answers or relief”? (Sunday Times, 10 November 2013)
Ambrosini is right about one thing: today, cancer is a far greater threat than it was in 1900. Back then, in the United States, for which we have good figures, “cancer and heart disease accounted for 18 percent of all deaths,” as Brian Fund wrote in the Atlantic last year. “Today, that figure’s jumped to 63 percent.”1
But that is not the fault of the scientists – Ambrosini is aiming at the wrong target here.
First, during that time period, people all over the world, but especially those who live in developed-world comfort, have been exposed to far more environmental factors. Just two examples out of thousands of known carcinogens(cancer-causing substances): benzene in the workplace, and asbestos everywhere (although the dangers were long known, it continued to be mined and used in construction of everything from brake pads to fireproofing for school buildings). Engine exhaust and outdoor pollution, both of them virtually unknown in 1900, are known carcinogens. Vinyl chloride (used in aerosols until 1974, and to make the PVC Mary Quant loved in the 1960s) was only really in use from the 1930s, and it is carcinogenic.
And of course, although people in Europe had smoked since Sir Walter Raleigh sent back the first batch of tobacco leaves, as Bob Newhart recorded, smoking as a habit really kicked off in the twentieth century, with clever advertising campaigns reeling in women as smokers, teens and traditionally non-smoking minority groups2.
Second, as well as being exposed to far more carcinogens, people are living longer – taking the USA again, the average life expectancy in 1900 was about 47; today, it’s around 30 years longer, and it’s in the years over 50 that we’re most likely to develop symptoms of cancer3.
So while infectious diseases have dropped dramatically, it’s true to say that the incidence of cancers has grown.
Achievements in fighting cancer
But Ambrosini is wrong when he says that science has failed cancer patients. Improvements in surgery, the evolution of chemotherapy and other science-driven advances have given immense hope to many.
- Just in the last 30 years, the five-year survival rate of women with ovarian cancer has nearly doubled, from 25% to about 50%4.
- About 60% of children died of childhood cancers forty years ago, in 1974, while today the five-year survival rate is up to 81%5.
- If you got breast cancer in 1974, there was a 75% survival rate, now up to 90%5.
But to be sure, some cancers have stubbornly resisted the inroads of medical science. The five-year survival rate of lung cancer patients has only improved from 13% to 16% since 19745. And the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer, the one that killed Steve Jobs, is very low6. For those unfortunate enough to get the ‘asbestos cancer’, mesothelioma, the chances are they will die between four and 18 months after their diagnosis7.
So it’s hardly surprising that people like Mario Ambrosini and Steve Jobs seek alternative treatment. Ambrosini has found hope in the work of Dr Tullio Simoncini, whose theory is that all cancer is caused by a fungus, the familiar yeast Candida albicans, the one people mean when they say, “Oh, I’ve got a dreadful yeast infection.”
But here’s the thing: “No peer-reviewed articles in medical journals were found supporting the theory that cancer is caused by a fungus infection or a yeast infection. Available peer-reviewed medical journals do not support claims that sodium bicarbonate works as a cancer treatment.
“Scientists require certain kinds of evidence to support claims that a kind of germ causes a certain disease. The first requirement is that the germ should be present in all cases of the disease. Simoncini claims that all tumors contain fungi. But these fungi have not been found in tumors when biopsies are examined by methods capable of revealing fungi in infected tissue. Another requirement is that infecting laboratory animals with the germ should cause the disease. Infections can develop in animals that are exposed to Candida albicans, but there are no credible reports that this exposure or infection causes cancer. Finally, when researchers remove diseased tissue from infected laboratory animals, they should be able to recover the germs and grow them in laboratory dishes. There are no reports in scientific journals that this has been observed for Candida albicans and cancer of experimental animals.8”
All cancer patients should inform themselves and research their disease and its treatments, says Campaigning for Cancer chief executive officer Lauren Pretorius. “A responsible patient wants to know exactly what treatment is available and what its impact is – and if there are any credible alternatives,” she says. “But be careful of accepting claims of ‘cure’ at face value. There are certain red flags to look out for.”
- People acting as medical practitioners offering treatment should be able to give you verifiable statistics for the treatment’s success or failure rates. How many people have undergone the treatment? Over what period? Which types of cancer were treated and in how many patients for each type? How many people in each of those categories were alive five years after treatment?
Your standard ‘quack’ alternative treatment will give you, instead, a few anonymous ‘testimonials’: “Miss S came to us with a diagnosis of breast cancer.”
- Ask the person offering the treatment if you can speak to patients who’ve been successfully treated =- patients with the same cancer as you have.
- Is there any mention of this treatment in mainstream scientific publications? If your internet search reveals only website addresses that start with www.naturalcure or www.sciencekills or www.altcancerhelp, that’s a red flag indicating this might be an untested or even dangerous treatment. You want to see, at the very least, questioning articles in scientific publications like the BMJ or Lancet: “Could this therapy aid cancer patients?”
- Are there any websites devoted to exposing your therapy of choice? If there are, read the information on them with a mind that’s at least as open as the one you use when reading about the proffered treatment.
- Is the person offering the treatment a genuine, qualified medical practitioner? (Simoncini has, in fact, been struck off the roll.)
- The claim is made that only they, the person or people offering the treatment, understand the true nature of cancer; that all the science around the disease or treatment thereof is wrong.
- Be careful of people who offer conspiracy theories as part of their rationale: “Big Pharma refuses to cure cancer because it will reduce their profits”.
“The top obstacle to efficacious treatment of cancer, for most South Africans, is lack of access to the medicines and care they need,” says Pretorius. “Either because they have to seek treatment in an under-resourced State health care system, or because their coverage on medical aid is not adequate to meet the need – an exercise we did showed that, if you have an annual cap of R450,000 on cancer treatment, and you get breast cancer, you may have to find as much as R150,000 additional funds.”
In addition, she says, “what we really need is more funding for research. Where scientists have adequate funding, they make remarkable strides in understanding and treating cancer.”