Why media coverage of alternative cancer cures is dangerous

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Michael Marshall

From: theguardian.com

Last week the Mirror Online reported on the story of Kelly Logan – a 34-year old breast cancer patient who has refused the surgery and chemotherapy her doctors advised, electing instead to try and treat her condition with an intense regime of raw food and supplements.

While nobody would dispute Logan’s right to make her own choices about her body, there’s little doubt at this point that raw vegetables, cannabis oil and herbal supplements are not the answer oncology has thus far been overlooking. Yet, despite medical developments over the last 40 years causing survival rates for most forms of cancer to rise significantly, there’s no shortage of voices within the the so-called alternative movement advising seriously ill cancer patients to abandon proven medicine for the latest rumoured natural cancer cure.

Although most of the treatments promoted by well-meaning but ultimately ill-informed alternative cancer activists merely offer no benefit, some can be actively dangerous in their own right. Laetrile, extracted from apricot kernels and often known as Vitamin B17, in high enough doses causes cyanide poisoning. Black salve, recommended by Logan’s Cancer Won’t Beat Me website (linked via the Mirror article), is a herbal paste designed to burn away the skin, allegedly searing out cancerous tumours along the way, leaving an open hole in the patient’s flesh (I strongly advise against Googling the horrifying results – the images require the strongest of stomachs). Alternative treatment regimes such as Gerson therapy or antineoplaston therapy cost patients tens of thousands of pounds and require adherence to an overbearing and deeply uncomfortable schedule.

Prof Edzard Ernst, an internationally-respected researcher in the field of alternative medicine, is unequivocal on the lack of evidence for such treatments: “There is no ‘alternative’ cancer treatment that would cure cancer or prolong the life of cancer patients,” he told me.

“There will always be patients and consumers who go on the internet to find out about health-related matters and, in the course of it, get everything wrong that one can possibly get wrong. It is sad enough that they are subsequently prone to harming themselves through their lack of insight. If, however, such a story then gets written up and published in an uncritical, sensational fashion, it becomes an issue that concerns us all.”

Here, perhaps, is the most worrying aspect of the Mirror’s report last week: the uncritical portrayal of Logan’s choice as that of the defiant mother who would rather “heal herself with herbal remedies” than be “pumped full of chemotherapy” by doctors who are “biased towards conventional treatment”. The only note of caution in the article came in the form of a quote from Macmillan Cancer Support at the very end of the story, long after many readers may already have been given the impression that Logan’s story – and with it, her medical advice – is worth following.

It seems clear that in failing to highlight the dangers of following the advice contained within the article, the Mirror implicitly endorsed it – certainly a look at the comments left on the article at the Mirror’s Facebook page show no shortage of agreement, as well as further suggested cures from eager commenters. Perhaps most frustratingly of all, the very apricot kernel supplements pictured and praised in the Mirror’s latest article were a mere fortnight earlier labelled “potentially toxic” and sold by a “conman” in the same publication.

When I put it to the Mirror that this article was irresponsible in its uncritical promotion of dangerous alternative cancer treatments, a spokesperson told me “The story you refer to came from Caters News Agency – the by-lined journalist works for them. It was also carried by the Mail and on ITV Good Morning Britain.”

While it’s true that both the Mail Online and ITV Good Morning Britain covered the story, both recognised the need to temper the promotion of these unproven treatments with advice from qualified experts. The Mail (whose willingness to speculate on the causes and cures of cancer has in the past made them the subject of numerous online spoofs) specifically sought out and prominently included additional advice from a medical oncologist and Cancer Research UK. For the Mirror to publish so irresponsible an article, and then to attempt to absolve themselves of responsibility for the claims they elected to publish and promote under their own masthead, is quite frankly astonishing.

Ernst was equally shocked by the Mirror’s response: “Journalists and newspaper editors have a considerable responsibility to inform the public responsibly. This article is a textbook example for irresponsible coverage of a health matter that concerns thousands of readers.

“Articles like this one are extremely regrettable; they jeopardise the efforts of the many professionals who work tirelessly to improve the prospects of cancer patients. In short, they have the potential to kill many patients.”

I contacted Logan to ask if she felt her advice may lead people to turn away from evidence-based treatments in favour of those promoted on her blog. She explained: “In regards to cannabis oil there are thousands of testimonials from people all over the world who have healed using it. Laetrile has numerous success stories. The reason why there isn’t scientific evidence is because it’s being suppressed.

“As I stated in my interview, this is my choice for me and my life. I am not in any way promoting anybody to follow me, everyone has to go on their own journey. My blog is for those who are open minded and who have maybe looked into it themselves but didn’t know where to look, so it covers most alternatives. I am not promoting people not to have chemotherapy, I am asking people to research, as it’s their life.”

The timing of the Mirror article provides a tragic footnote: not only was it published the week after the release of Logan’s detox ebook, but it appeared the day before the death from cancer of Jessica Ainscough – Australia’s “wellness warrior”. Ainsough was a young woman faced with a serious diagnosis who elected to treat her cancer with a regime of supplements and juices, gaining regular positive coverage in the media and recommending her lifestyle to a social media following of tens of thousands of people before her ultimately untimely and tragic death at the age of 30 last week. The parallels between the uncritical media coverage of these two stories are hard to ignore.

Michael Marshall is the project director for the Good Thinking Society, a charity aiming to promote critical thinking about alternative medicine and issues of pseudoscience. He tweets as @MrMMarsh.