My husband was diagnosed with stage IV rectal cancer last year. We were stunned as we listened to his oncologist give us the diagnosis and even more shocked by the presentation of his CT scan results. His abdomen lit up like lights on a Christmas tree. “These results are not ideal,” his oncologist said. Indeed, they were not. His next nine months would be spent doing 8 rounds of chemotherapy, followed by 28 radiation treatments, and finally surgery to remove his tumor.
Perhaps due in part to his being raised by a surgeon and a nurse, never once did he question the treatment plan offered by his oncologist, radiologist, and surgeon. Nor did he spend a moment looking for alternative treatments, similar to those studied in the recently released study in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Oncology report. This study concluded that cancer patients treated by alternative treatments such as naturopathy, homeopathy, herbs, or Chinese medicine instead of traditional methods were more than twice as likely to die from the disease.
Despite the American Cancer Society’s latest data that shows, in the past 30 years, the 5-year cancer survival rate has increased 20 percent for Caucasians and 24 percent for African Americans, cancer patients continue to be drawn to alternative and unproven treatments. To make matters even more confusing, a number of websites exist that call chemotherapy treatments “toxic poison.”
Take Cleveland-based cancer survivor and blogger Chris Wark. In 2003, Wark was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer and was told by his doctor that, “…if you don’t do chemotherapy, you are insane.” Wark rejected the advice, and now claims he healed himself (after surgery) by changing his diet, and by doing every natural, alternative, and holistic therapy he could find.
Wark is just one of many anti-chemotherapy bloggers quoting a 2004 study done in Australia by the Northern Sydney Cancer Centre which suggested that the 5-year chemotherapy survival was estimated to be 2.3% in Australia and 2.1% in the United States. Dr. David Gorski, surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Center Institute, raised significant questions about this claim in an article written for the website Science- Based Medicine, including the fact that many cancers most successfully treated with chemotherapy such as leukemia were omitted from the data. Yet, Gorski’s rebuttals have been largely ignored by the alternative bloggers, who still quote the 2.1% number.
Sadly, Wark’s website (which we will not disclose here because we don’t want to promote such dangerous pseudoscience) is one of the top links featured when you do a Google search on the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
Those that promote alternative cancer therapies often claim that traditional chemotherapy treatments exist simply to make a profit for hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. Yet when you closely examine Wark’s website, you’ll find that although Wark admits he is neither a doctor or a scientist (complete with a surreal photo of a muppet doctor), he is selling digital download packages of his “Square One, Healing Cancer Program” for $97 and $147, as well endorsements for a long list of products with links for purchase. Sounds like he’s making quite a hefty profit off his “treatment plans.” Are we to believe his profit is more pure or more properly earned than the researchers and pharmaceutical companies that spend billions and decades developing life saving drugs?
Wark does say that he only endorses the products he truly believes in, but while admitting that he is required by law to provide disclosures, he makes a flippant joke that the readers of his blog should “go ahead and assume that I was compensated with: huge stacks of money, stock options, food, clothing, goodie bags, first class travel, limo rides, and luxury vacations.”
While Wark is fortunate to have won his own battle with cancer (although when one opts only for surgery and no chemo, the chances of reoccurrence increase), it also raises many questions about the danger of his pseudoscience for those who choose to listen. Consider the question and answer section of his website, where he tells a stage 3 cancer patient (who has come to his site seeking answers) that while he’s not a doctor and therefore can’t give her cancer advice, “…as a friend I can certainly share what I did. There’s no law against that! (yet)”
He’s right. There’s no law, and there shouldn’t be. But there’s also no law about calling out false friends who profit off misleading the sick and vulnerable. That’s not friendship. That’s cruelty.
As a spouse of a cancer patient, I was sent a few websites and links educating me about the secret cancer cures. My favorites included, drinking baking soda to boost your alkaline levels and claims that cannabis oil is the magic trick to curing this disease. My husband took a different route and lived through nearly a year of treatments.
One year later, we both realize the brutality of traditional cancer treatments, but we are grateful for his two scans showing no evidence of disease, and the extra time it’s given him to spend with our three daughters.