Feb 16 2018

More Victims of Alternative Cancer Treatments

Every doctor who treats cancer patients can tell you stories of patients who present with cancers too advanced to treat because they were spending their time pursuing alternative treatments. This has also been studied – last year a Yale team published a study showing higher rates of death among cancer patients who choose alternative treatments.

There is now a recent story of a YouTuber who produced videos claiming that a vegan diet and prayer cured her stage 4 cancer, except now she has died from her cancer. Of course, I am sad for her death and that the treatments she sought at the end were not enough to save her. It’s likely that everyone knows someone affected by cancer – it is a scary and often tragic disease. At the same time, we can’t miss the lessons in this story. It is so typical it can serve as an archetype.

What typically happens is that when some people are diagnosed with cancer they search for any possible salvation from their situation. That is understandable. Often there is an initial treatment, such as removal of a solid tumor, or shrinking the tumor with drugs. Some patients may also seek additional intervention, such as alternative treatments or faith healing. At that point they are in the honeymoon phase of the illness – no matter what their ultimate prognosis, their symptoms were likely improved by the initial treatment. They can imagine that they are cured. This is usually the point at which they claim that whatever alternative or faith-based treatment they underwent healed them.

Depending on the type of cancer, some of these patients may have been essentially cured by their initial surgery or treatment. For those who weren’t, a recurrence of symptoms is inevitable. We then may or may not hear about them when the cancer returns and leads to their death.

What this means is that newly diagnosed cancer patients can find countless stories of people claiming to have been “cured” of their cancer by all sorts of nonsense. There will always be a cohort of people in the honeymoon phase of their illness. This is the pitfall of anecdotal evidence. It is selective and biased.

What we really want is a systematic assessment of what the result of various treatment choices are. If you have a specific kind of cancer, and you choose the recommended treatment regimen what will be your outcome, statistically? What are your chances if you delay or refuse treatment, or if you rely on various alternative treatments? Well, we have this data – if you rely on alternative treatments your chance of death is increased.

The story of Mari Lopez, linked to above, follows this typical pattern. She became a popular YouTuber with her niece, Liz. Together they claimed that juicing, a vegan diet, and prayer cured Mari’s stage 4 cancer. When Mari’s cancer returned, she understandably became depressed. She asked Liz to take down the videos claiming she was cured, but Liz refused. She has doubled-down on her claims in the face of such dramatic evidence to the contrary.

How is this possible? The power of a strong narrative. Just read the comments below the article and you will see a typical battle of world views. The evidence is mostly irrelevant, because you can simply filter the evidence and choose whatever your reality is.

If find it instructive that Mari and Liz mixed together the claims that diet and faith cured Mari. Both, in fact, are manifestations of faith. Alternative medicine is often a mixture of pseudoscience and faith healing, blended seamlessly together.

The faith claims have a significant problem with logic and consistency. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal faith, but I do think it is counterproductive to depend for anything important on a mythical being you just hope exists. What I always find intriguing is those who claim that God cured them of a disease, but not really. In this case Liz believes that God cured Mari of her cancer, but Mari wavered, so the cancer came back and killed her. Really?

First, that is a pretty incompetent cure. I would expect more from an omnipotent being. The other implication, if you are going to give God credit for the cure, then he has to get the blame for the return. That means that God smote her, struck her down with cancer because she had a hamburger.  You can draw your own conclusions about what kind of god would do that.

Liz’s current rationalization for Mari’s death, which seems to contradict her entire YouTube career, is that toward the end Mari was cheating on her vegan diet. You see, the juicing was only just keeping the cancer at bay (which is why they claimed she was completely cured). The moment she started to waver in her vegan purity, and gave in to the temptations of beef, the cancer claimed her.

This is another absolutely typical part of the faith healing narrative, borrowed heavily by the alternative medicine narrative. Failures are always blamed on the patient. It is a convenient rationalization – they lacked sufficient faith in the case of the former, and they did not adhere fanatically enough to the regimen, for the latter.

That is often the extra layer of cruelty imposed by alternative cancer cures. First, target someone who is extremely vulnerable because they were just given a scary diagnosis and face months or years of horrible treatment. Lure them away from logic and evidence with the promise of salvation. Turn them against the doctors who are trying to give them objective evidence-based advice. Convince them that their doctors are just money-grubbing shills for an evil industry of death.

Now that you have them in your clutches, suck every ounce of money out of them you can. You can maximize your profits if your victim is willing to raise money from family and friends. Cancer patients are very sympathetic and good as props for fundraising.

While they are busy raising money to pay you, make sure whatever time they have left will be spent pursuing a draconian treatment regimen – consuming massive amounts of raw vegetables, and getting coffee enemas, for example. This may seem unnecessarily cruel, but this is important. When their cancer returns you can then blame them for not following the impossible regimen strictly enough. This is the best way to deflect any blame for the bad outcome. They will be too busy feeling guilty as well as depressed.

This may seem like a dramatic story, but it is literally true in many cases. Not all alternative treatments are this cynically bad or extreme, but this is not uncommon, and most will incorporate some of these features.

Yes, mainstream treatment is expensive and harsh too. Cancer is a serious disease and often requires aggressive, even desperate, treatment. The difference is, mainstream treatments are based on a thoughtful analysis of the best evidence available, and patients are given detailed informed consent. Alternative treatments are a package of lies, pseudoscience, false hope, and deception. But they are wrapped in a compelling narrative (if it fits your world view).

So Liz thinks that Mari was killed by her backsliding on her juicing and vegan diet, and that God reneged on his miraculous cure. That is apparently easier than questioning her alternative medicine narrative. I can understand that – because that would involve facing the fact that delaying conventional treatment while putting her faith in juicing may have contributed to, and even lead to, Mari’s death.

It is important to point all this out, not for Mari (her story is over) and not for Liz (who is probably a lost cause) but for all those other recently diagnosed cancer patients out there. Facing a cancer diagnosis requires a bit of courage, and a lot of support. False hope and deceptive but alluring narratives literally kill. Many cancer patients will also tell you that after their diagnosis well-meaning friends, family, coworkers, and other acquaintances come out of the woodwork to offer their completely unsolicited medical advice.

Here is my advice – don’t do this. Just stop. You are not a doctor, not an expert, and your Google university degree does not mean you can practice medicine.  The person you are trying to help either will be harmed by you, if they follow your advice, or at best will be extremely annoyed. You are just adding emotional pain to their situation. They don’t want the guilt and pressure of being told that they need faith, or they need to keep a positive attitude, or they need to start juicing and avoid meat.

Stop it. You don’t know what you are talking about. You are just causing pain and harm, despite your intention. Just give them love and support, and let medical professionals take care of the rest.

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