CAM for cancer is no alternative

Mammogram showing breast cancer

One of the themes I’ve emphasized in many posts on this blog is that every treatment decision requires an evaluation of risks and benefits. No treatment is without some sort of risk: Even a decision to decline treatment has its own risks. And when a treatment has no demonstrable benefits, the risks factor more significantly into our evaluation. One of my frequent counseling challenges with patients is helping them understand a medication’s expected long-term benefits against the risks and side effects of treatment. This dialogue is most challenging with symptomless conditions like high blood pressure, where patients face the prospect of immediate side effects against the potential for long-term benefit. One’s willingness to accept side effects is influenced, in part, by and understanding of, and belief in, the overall goals of therapy. Side effects from blood-pressure medications can be unpleasant. But weighed against the reduced risk of catastrophic events like strokes, drug therapy may be more acceptable. Willingness to accept these tradeoffs varies dramatically by disease, and are strongly influenced by patient-specific factors. In general, the more serious the illness, the greater the willingness to accept the risks of treatment.

As I’ve described before, consumers may have completely different risk perspectives when it comes to drug therapies and (so-called) complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). For some, there is a clear delineation between the two: drugs are artificial, harsh, and dangerous. Supplements, herbs and anything deemed “alternative”, however, are natural, safe, and effective. When we talk about drugs, we use scientific terms – discussing the probability of effectiveness or harm, and describing both. With CAM, no tentativeness or balance may be used. Specific treatment claims may not be backed up by any supporting evidence at all. On several occasions patients with serious medical conditions have told me that they are refusing all drug treatments, describing them as ineffective or too toxic. Many are attracted to the the simple promises of CAM, instead. Now I’m not arguing that drug treatment is always necessary for ever illness. For some conditions where lifestyle changes can obviate the need for drug treatments, declining treatment this may be a reasonable approach – it’s a kick in the pants to improve one’s lifestyle. Saying “no” may also be reasonable where the benefits from treatment are expected to be modest, yet the adverse effects from treatments are substantial. These scenarios are not uncommon in the palliative care setting. But in some circumstances, there’s a clear medical requirement for drug treatment – yet treatment is declined. This approach is particularly frustrating in situations where patients face very serious illnesses that are potentially curable. This week is the World Cancer Congress in Montreal and on Monday there were calls for patients to beware of fake cancer cures, ranging from laetrile, to coffee enemas, to juicing, and mistletoe. What are the consequences of using alternative treatments, instead of science-based care, for cancer? There are several studies and a recent publication that can help answer that question. Continue reading

The consequences of legitimizing nonsense

Smarties: As effective as homeopathy

For a blog established to examine the role of science in pharmacy practice, I’ve given a disproportionate amount of attention to homeopathy. Which is frustrating, because homeopathy is not something that pharmacists, or the pharmacy profession, should even need to discuss. Unlike herbal remedies, and some supplements, there isn’t even any science to discuss. As pseudoscience goes, homeopathy is the worst of the worst – it is a belief system, nothing more. If homeopathy actually worked as claimed, it would mean that all we know about biology, biochemistry, pharmacology, and toxicology was wrong. Not a little wrong, but completely wrong. Which would then mean that all we know about science-based medicine is wrong.

In short, homeopathy is an elaborate placebo system, based on the idea that “like cures like” (which is simply a form of magical thinking) involving successive dilutions of products in water, like Berlin Wall, “Mobile Phone (900mHz)“, and even the light reflecting off Saturn. These substances are believed to have medicinal effects, and the dilutions are believed to increase, not decrease, the potency of the final product. But the dilutions in homeopathy are so great you’re not even getting any Berlin Wall. Think of putting one drop of a substance into a container of water. Only that container is 131 light-years in diameter. That’s the “30C” dilution. Homeopaths believe that the water molecules retains a “memory” of the original substance (while conveniently forgetting all the other products it has come in contact with.) The final remedy is diluted so so completely that most products on store shelves don’t contain a single molecule of the ingredient listed on the label. After all that dilution, the water is dripped on tablets of sucrose and lactose: They are, as a final product, sugar pills. Chemically indistinguishable, and as medicinal as a box of Smarties.

Not surprisingly, a review of clinical trials, when you control for biases, confirms what grade-school numeracy and scientific literacy would suggest – homeopathic products are no more effective than a comparable placebo. Yet frustratingly, regulators in Canada and in other countries have given legitimacy to homeopathy by registering both the medication and their purveyors – risking the perception that homeopathy may in fact offer medicinal value. And whether it’s due to ignorance of homeopathy, or indifference to the unfounded ideas of “alternative” health, legitimate health professionals continue to give a pass to homeopathy, taking a “What’s the harm” attitude. Yet harms can result: Continue reading

Cinnamon for for diabetes? Why “natural” doesn’t mean safe or effective


Here’s a scenario I encountered that will be familiar to many pharmacists. It starts with a customer seeking advice at the counter:

“My doctor says I have prediabetes. I don’t want to take any drugs. Do you have something natural I can use to cut my blood sugar?”

I looked at him in the eye, and pointed at his sizeable midsection. “Sir, if you’re at risk for diabetes, and you don’t want to take medication, the single best thing you can do for yourself is lose some weight.”

He grinned and asked, “Great – what supplement can I take to help me?”

This type of discussion occurs all the time. A patient has been assessed by their physician, and informed that they have a medical problem of some sort. The patient, reluctant to accept the physician’s evaluation, heads to the pharmacy for a second opinion. In some cases, the patient may question the physician’s advice: “All my physician wants to do is prescribe drugs.” Yet there’s a disconnect when it comes to strategies for management. More often than not, non-drug approaches are rejected out-of-hand (probably because the sample I speak with have already made the decision to buy something). And in those that are leery of medical management, there’s often a willingness to consider anything that’s available without a prescription – particularly if it’s perceived as “natural.” Natural products are gentle, safe, and effective, while medicine is thought of as unnatural, harsh, and potentially dangerous. This is the naturalistic fallacy, nothing more. Continue reading

Recommended Reading: “The Cure for Everything” and “Which comes first, cardio or weights?”

You may consider yourself a critical thinker and scientific skeptic, but do you have any blind spots? I’ve had a skeptical perspective for a long time (my teenage cynicism wasn’t just a phase) but the framework for my thinking has developed over years. Professionally, the blind spot that the pharmacy profession has towards supplements and alternatives to medicine was only clear after I spent some time working in a pharmacy with thriving homeopathy sales. In looking for some credible evidence to guide my recommendations, I discovered there was quite literally *nothing* to homeopathy. Once I discovered blogs like Respectful Insolence, the critical thinking process, and scientific skepticism, took off from there. Continue reading