Nov 14 2014

The Seduction of Cancer Quackery

Here’s another instance of the narrative clashing with reality.

I wrote recently about an 11-year-old girl, a member of Canada’s Six Nations community, who has leukemia. Her parents, concerned about the side effects of chemotherapy, would rather treat her with traditional and alternative medicine. They are fighting for their right to do so, and the court seems sympathetic to the rights of the parents to express their cultural identity.

Meanwhile, it seems clear to me that the parents, and more importantly the girl, are simply being victimized by a charlatan, who has nothing to do with their cultural identity.

The seduction, really a con, is fairly straight forward. A seriously ill child is every parent’s worst nightmare, putting them into an extremely vulnerable position. Cancer is especially frightening, and chemotherapy, while it can be effective, is harsh. Leukemia is very treatable, and the girl’s doctors give her a 90-95% chance of being completely cured with a standard course of chemotherapy. However, she will have serious side effects from the chemo, and that is hard for any parent to watch. It can be an emotional dilemma (I think intellectually it’s a no-brainer, but emotionally tough).

The con involves giving parents in that terrible situation an apparent escape-hatch. The mother of the sick girl lays it out more plainly than I have ever seen before:

“He had the tone of voice where he was so confident,” she says.

“By him saying, ‘Oh yes no problem we can help her,’ that’s the day I stopped the chemo.”

Of course he was confident – that’s why they call them “confidence men.”

The “he” in this story is Brian Clement, director of a Florida health resort, Hippocrates Health Institute, a licensed “massage establishment.” He calls himself “Dr.” and claims to have a naturopathic degree, but even that appears to be from a diploma mill. In any case, he is not licensed to treat cancer. CBC News obtained a video promoting the clinic and report:

Clement says his institute teaches people to “heal themselves” from cancer by eating raw, organic vegetables and having a positive attitude.

“We’ve had more people reverse cancer than any institute in the history of health care,” he says.

“So when McGill fails or Toronto hospital fails, they come to us. Stage four (cancer), and they reverse it.”

Those are bold claims. Of course, they are completely without evidence. If any treatment were half as effective as he is claiming, it would be an simple matter to demonstrate the effectiveness in a clinical trial. Even a small trial would probably show an effect, enough of one to gain attention. If this guy were reversing stage four cancer where mainstream medicine had failed, he could easily prove it. As I like to point out – if his claims were true, than he is guilty of massive malfeasance by not proving it scientifically. Think of all the people who are needlessly dying from cancer because this guy is keeping his secrets to himself. Share them with the world.

Of course, whenever this ineluctable logic is pointed out the answer inevitably is to invoke a conspiracy. Doctors, the conspiracy goes, would rather see children die of cancer than to provide them an effective cure, if the cure is not profitable enough for them or doesn’t serve their Big Pharma masters. Really, it’s a childish (and paranoid) cartoon version of reality that never ceases to amaze me.

Conclusion

What the 11-year-old girl with leukemia really needs is some tough love. She needs a guardian who understands the situation – she will have to put up with some temporary pain in order to have a 90-95% chance of surviving her illness and then living a normal life. If she does not get chemotherapy she will almost certainly die a horrible death at a very young age, her life taken from her. She is the only one that matters in this equation.

While I do not blame her parents, they are failing her. Her parents are in turn being victimized and failed also, and that failure is transferring down to the sick girl.

They are being victimized by a man who, by all available accounts, is a con-man with a fake degree (in a dubious specialty) selling fake treatments for a curable life-threatening disease. If this girl dies then Clement, in my opinion, would be guilty of manslaughter at least.

The big failures here, however, are the governments. Florida is allowing a health con-man to thrive in their state. The legislature is guilty for passing health care freedom laws to shield quacks. The Department of Health seems to have their hands tied, so it may not be their fault, but they should be doing everything they can with the authority they have.

Incidentally, one of my colleagues at SBM has reported Clement to the Florida Department of Health. We’ll see how they respond.

The Canadian government is also failing this poor girl. They have a duty to protect the innocent, and I can’t think of a more clear case where the government should simply step in and do what is right to save a sick child, regardless of how politically difficult it might be. Saying that her right to health care and life are mitigated by the fact that she was born into an indigenous culture is absurd, in my opinion, and is condescending.This child needs responsible adults, not politics, not ideology.

Further, the entire alternative medicine culture is responsible for this girl and all the cases like hers. Over the last few decades they have successfully carried out a propaganda campaign that has slowly convinced Western culture that quackery is “alternative,” that science is optional or subjective, and have increasingly lobbied for laws shielding quacks and charlatans from the standard of care.

Finally I place a certain amount of blame on my own profession. Medicine and academia have allowed themselves to be bamboozled by anti-intellectualism. A minority have embraced the nonsense, but the majority are worse. They are “shruggies” who can’t seem to spare the time to be outraged by charlatans seeking cover under white coats, fake degrees, and benefiting from the trappings of academia. Academic medicine has failed this girl by failing to be sufficiently outraged by the pseudoscience and mysticism creeping into our profession and our universities.

Update: The judge in this case has ruled for the family, denying the application to remove the girl in order to provide for her standard of care medicine. Judge Edward ruled:

“In applying the foregoing reasons to the Applicant’s section 40(4) application, I cannot find that J.J. is a child in need of protection when her substitute decision-maker has chosen to exercise her constitutionally protected right to pursue their traditional medicine over the Applicant’s stated course of treatment of chemotherapy.”

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