Alt med ghouls

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2009 7:30 am

I was saddened to hear last week that actor Patrick Swayze had died. I get grief for it, but "Roadhouse" is a favorite movie of mine, and of course his skit with Chris Farley on SNL is a classic. I hear Swayze was a good man, and his death from pancreatic cancer is a loss to us all.

But some people are gaining from it; they’re ghoulishly using his death to promote their own agendas, and in some cases it’s truly horrid.

Take, for example, the website Natural News, an "alternative medicine" website which prides itself on promoting health threats like antivaccination nonsense and other provably wrong claims. They have published a particularly obnoxious and loathsome article that says Swayze’s death was caused not by his cancer, but by his chemotherapy.

This is, to be quite clear, utter crap. The author, Mike Adams, goes on and on piling one awful logical fallacy on top of another. He makes a list of people who died "after chemotherapy", never talking about how chemotherapy saves thousands of lives every year. And even saying "after chemotherapy" is misleading. After all, everyone dies after being born, so why not say that the absolute biggest cause of death is birth?

He also leaves out the simple fact that if these people hadn’t received chemotherapy, they’d have died sooner. And, of course, he doesn’t say how many people die after trying "alternative" therapies.

But why let the facts get in the way of vitriol and propaganda? I could go on, but just go and read Skeptical Teacher for a very blunt and NSFW article on this.

Of course, not to be outdone in promulgating manure, Suzanne Somers decided to pipe up with what could be an award-winning quotation of bad thinking:

Somers, who has a book about cancer coming out next month, said: "Why couldn’t they have built [Swayze] up nutritionally and gotten rid of the toxins?"

Hey, maybe because that doesn’t stop cancer? Is that a good enough answer?

It’s time to stop pussyfooting around this kind of dangerous medical garbage — as Swayze said in "Roadhouse", it’s time to not be nice.

Antiscience advice like this from Mike Adams, Suzanne Somers, Jenny McCarthy, and others can and will lead to people dying if they act on it. These people are dispensing medical advice that is complete nonsense. Detoxifying the body won’t cure cancer, using herbs won’t cure cancer, aligning your chakras won’t cure cancer. If you have cancer, or know someone who has been diagnosed, please please please go to a board-certified and experienced doctor or oncologist. Don’t listen to celebrities, and don’t listen to alternative quacks.

Don’t even listen to me. Listen to your doctor. Medical science — stressing the word science — is and will be your best bet to take care of yourself.

[Update : I forgot to add links to Orac, who has quite the opinion on Mike Adams and Suzanne Somers.]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Alt-Med, Antiscience, Debunking, Science

Comments (59)

  1. captain swoop

    Everyone should make a regular stopping point, just like you do Bad Astronomy..

  2. Bigfoot

    It’s astounding to consider that BOTH men from the Farley/Swayze skit on SNL are no longer with us. Life is short.

  3. Kevin

    People will be exploiting deaths forever. It’s sad. If not the alt-med idiots, someone else would (hey – how about hackers! They’re exploting Swayze’s death, too!)

    Blaming chemo for causing someone’s death is like blaming a doctor for killing a patient who gets shot in the head. “If they had naturally cleansed the body, instead of a risky surgery to attempt to remove the bullet, the victim would still be alive. Bad doctor, trying to save his life, you should be ashamed of yourself (oh, and buy my toxic cleanser, only $39.99 plus s+h.)”

  4. Phillip M

    And the leading cause of divorce is marriage.

    I just lost a very dear friend and mentor to lung cancer. He received chemo for about a year before he died. While the chemo was bad, it allowed him to function for most of his final year. If anyone doubts the use of chemo or other REAL cancer treatments show me evidence. My evidence is a man who could no longer breathe before chemo, lived for a year and got to say his farewells.

  5. Lawrence

    I don’t understand how people can totally ignore the fact that all of these “ghouls” are out trying to make money off of these ideas/solutions/BS – while railing against doctors and the medical industry for doing the same thing (and saving tens of thousands of lives each and every year).

    Crazy – Bat S Crazy

  6. Big Al

    It’s time for some serious truth in advertitizing laws. I mean laws with literal, real teeth in them. Trolls who advertise stupid crap that is dangerous and ineffective should be put in cages with rabid rats, and their death by thousands of bites should be put on pay per view television.

  7. Tony

    I was compelled to post something, but I just can’t put the words together to express my discuss at this nonsense, so just saying that will have to be enough.

  8. Kevin

    Double-post, whoops

  9. Dan

    Thanks Mr. BAD ASStronomer for another great blog.

    I don’t like to hate, but I hate these celebrity anti-medicine, pro-woo f***ers! I feel bad from them, too. Jenny McArthy has an autistic child. That’s terrible. But I feel worse for the parents of children who’ve DIED for lack of vax! So f*** Jenny Mac!

    You know who I love? You, Phil Plait.

    I hope you meet you at one of the JREF events soon. Your speech at TAM 6 last year kicked ass. For those who missed it, the key phrase was, “We don’t know!” It was great.

  10. As things turn out, I was at a conference yesterday where someone told the following story:

    “I once talked about one specific form of chinese traditional medicine with an experienced practitioner, and at one point I asked ‘how do you know it works?’. He replied ‘this is such an occidental question!'”.

    When told stories like that, many audiences will smile and nod in a self-congratulatory manner, happy to be tolerant enough not to insist on evidence. They forget that:

    1) claiming not to need to show evidence is not specific to a given culture, but of everybody everywhere who ever wanted money or status for free
    2) while keeping an aura of mystery might enhance the placebo effect and not be completely useless, this is an explainable mechanism testable by the scientific method,
    3) most importantly, ‘whether or not it works’ will suddenly become very crucial indeed to them should they ever become ill themselves…

  11. John Baxter

    Well, my chemo bit me hard after the 8th (of 12) sessions of the standard (stage III) colon cancer theraby, leading to 11 days in an ICU. I’m 3 months short of 5 years after diagnosis (and about 4 1/4 years after the ICU adventure).

    I’m still here, and an active age 70–that seems like a good tradeoff to me.

    Note: catch your colon cancer early–a few months earlier and I wouldn’t have needed the chemo.

    Thank you, Phil

    –John (read first two books, waiting for “After Death from the Skies”)

  12. SionH

    One of my best friends has recently beaten chronic myeloid leukaemia with the aid of chemotherapy. As a result, his wife and 2 daughters get to hang on to him for hopefully many more years. As do I.

    Yay for science!

  13. Well, if someone thinks that:

    Even late-stage pancreatic cancer can be reversed (yes, reversed) with full-on naturopathic treatments …

    then obviously something somewhere went terribly wrong

  14. John. S

    I had an aunt that I loved dearly. At some point she became a believer in natural therapy and opposed to organized medicine. When she got cancer she refused regular treatment and went into those alternative methods. She manage to keep it a secret how badly the cancer was eating away at her until it was too late.

    She hurt more than just herself because we all miss her terribly. I still feel it writing this.

    On a positive note, when my mother got breast cancer, we convinced her to ignore her sister’s advice for natural remedies. My mother opted for a mastectomy and, hard as that was, she came through. It has been more than ten years since the operation and she looks very healthy; she just turned seventy.

  15. BoneheadFX

    My wife is alive (5+ years) because of chemotherapy. Yes, it’s nasty stuff, and I hated watching her have to endure it, but both of us agree that it did exactly what it was supposed to do-it kicked cancer’s butt and gave us more time.

  16. Phillip M

    I know I am preaching to the choir, but if it works it becomes science or medicine. For example:

    A few recently approved drugs.

    Apomorphine hydrochloride
    Tiotropium bromide
    Galantamine hydrobromide
    Arteether (an ancient Chinese remedy)

    These were all considered alt-med until they were proven by SCIENCE to actually do something other than pad the wallet of a woo peddler and now they are medicine.

    One last point cyanide is “all natural”, too!

  17. Cindy

    I guess that the people who promote natural healing are forgetting such facts such as arsenic or radon (two naturally occurring substances) cause cancer. As Phil has said before, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.

    I do wonder that if Suzanne Somer’s breast cancer returns if she’s still going to stay on the no chemotherapy stance if that’s the best chance of cure/prolonging her life.

  18. Martin A. lessem, J.D.

    For years I have said that, “Life is a Terminal Disease we’re all born with.”

    It is sad when that statement shows itself to be true, but it will eventually happen.

    We had a family friend who survivied because of chemotherapy and got to see his daughter graduate from high school before he died three weeks later. If it hadn’t been for the chemo (and the marrow transplant) he wouldn’t have made it that far.

  19. Cheyenne

    “It’s astounding to consider that BOTH men from the Farley/Swayze skit on SNL are no longer with us. Life is short.”

    Before Farley made it to SNL he was performing at Second City in Chicago. I saw him a few times back then and I still feel sad when I read his name. I feel sad because he made me (and everybody in the audience) actually hurt with laughter. There have only been 2 times in my life when I actually cried from laughing and that dude is the sole reason for it. He was brilliant and outrageous (at Second City you can cut it loose, unlike SNL) and I’m not one for normally being sentimental but damn I wish that guy was still around doing his thing.

  20. I’m guessing that this “built him up nutritionally” thing that Suzanne Somers mentioned is the “Gonzalez Protocol” that the Columbia University did a study on. The same one recently mentioned on SGU (Sept 12th episode, about 24 minutes in) as resulting in 1/3 the survival time of chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer patients. Quick summary of the study: Detoxification and nutritional supplements aren’t even close to being as effective as chemotherapy and afford a lower quality of life for the patient. What’s really odd about this study is that they sat on the results for four years before releasing them.

  21. jasonB

    I can wrap my head around arguing over to vax or not. BUT I can’t believe anyone could give you grief over the movie that is ROADHOUSE. Mullets, Kelly Lynch, Kung Fu, monster trucks, Kelly Lynch (had I already covered that fact?) and it’s a movie about being a bar bouncer! Albeit the best “cooler” in the country.

    Just remember, if any one gives you any more “grief” over this movie, be nice. If they insult the movie again, be nice. Until it’s time to not be nice.

    I believe I’ve seen Roadhouse too many times….

  22. I just had an argument with someone online last night about homeopathy. She asked whether anyone had tried it so I replied that it was bunk. She directed me to homeopathic websites claiming the standard “water has memory” stuff. I in turn supplied some examples (“like cures like” so caffeine should cure insomnia so dilute 1 teaspoon of coffee in a cup of water and you’ll be able to sleep) and pointed her to Science Based Medicine. (Couldn’t find the link to the homeopathy debunking page here even though I could have sworn there was one.)

    Still, she insisted that my arguments weren’t valid because I had never tried it. She eventually decided that she was going to try My wife criticized me for getting into an online argument like that, but I’m not going to stay quiet if someone asks about the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies. If we stay quiet, then the only ones who will answer will be the homeopaths with their bad science. If I lose the arguments against homeopathy, then either 1) I need to improve my arguing skills (perhaps not come across as harsh, find better links) or 2) the person has already made up their mind and is looking for confirmation for their already-made decision. I think last night was a combination of those two.

  23. Franky

    Is there a correlation between homeopathy et al and IDers/theists? Curiousity, is all.

    My brother passed away from ALL 11 months ago and it galls me to have someone tell me it was their god’s will. Sheep, all of them.

  24. Plainview

    I know this is horrible, but if you’re idiotic enough to take medical advice from hack celebrities, then umm… good riddance.

  25. As I said on my blog, Mike Adams is a snake oil salesman who makes money on cures for cancer and his screeds should be seen as evidence of gross medical negligence by a court rather than read as a legitimate opinion from an expert.

    And of course, after I said that, several other alt med ghouls showed up to tell me how I was so wrong and stupid for thinking that chemotherapy actually works…

    Seriously though, Adams should be sued for impersonating a doctor and maliciously harming his audience with potentially lethal woo.

    PS: using this bozo’s name and the word expert in the same sentence made me feel a little ill actually…

  26. Blashy

    I can’t stand because they are the complete opposite of people like Suzanne Summers, they are just as closed minded as she is. They have ties to pharmaceutical companies and it shows.

    As for Mike Adams, he’s got the basics right on nutrition but he goes too far in his message. If he just stuck to how to eat properly and how this prevents many degenerative diseases (like cancer). But some of the stuff he writes (like BA mentions about Swayze) is just downright stupidity.

    Being healthy is not really all that complicated, just stay away from crap foods & don’t eat like a pig.

  27. John

    Preventative diet and exercise is the way to go. Promoting the idea that we have anything approaching a cure is dangerous, regardless of whether it’s conventional or alternative.

    Chemotherapy is very much a last resort, it’s a horrible treatment that relies on the principle of destroying enough rapidly dividing cells to eventually destroy some malignant ones, and it doesn’t work well on older, established tumors.

    With some cancers, the symptoms of the cancer returning can be confused with side-effects of the treatment, and people can die if that difference isn’t correctly diagnosed.

  28. Rob G.

    Suzanne Somers: “Why couldn’t they have built him up nutritionally and got ten rid of the toxins? . . . I hate to be this controversial . . . but I have to speak out.”

    You hate to be this controversial? You have to speak out?

    Trust me, honey. You had more crediblity when you were speaking out about the Thigh Master. Perhaps you should stick with selling garbage on T.V. instead of spouting garbage about something you obviously know nothing about.

  29. Yojimbo

    I have a friend who is fighting an agressive brain tumor. She has always frustrated me because she was so much into woo, but it turns out that she is actually pretty sensible. She has her woo-oriented friends “direct healing energy” or do healing sessions for her. But, she immediately got the best (real) medical advice and treatment she could. The odds are that she will not win this fight, but her scientific medicine treatments are allowing her to enjoy a reasonably good quality of life in the time she has. If she wants to accept the woo on the off chance that it might help, well, why not? So long as she gets and accepts the best actual medicine she can. Adams and his ilk, though, work to get people to not use the tools and techniques that hold best hopes they have. It ought to be criminal.

    Having myself been the recipient of radioactive seed implant treatment for prostate cancer, I’m just astonished at people who denegrate scientific medicine. The idea that something potentially deadly (like prostate cancer) could be dealt with by a procedure that didn’t even require a hospital stay is amazing. There is now brain surgery that can be done on your lunch break! The Mike Adams of the world would have us back to leeches, breathing mercury, and chanting incantations. If they ever get sick they should not be allowed to use real medicine – only their natural cures.

  30. @Blashy
    You’re being sarcastic about quackwatch aren’t you?

  31. Assuming that Blashy is not a poe, there is no open or closed mindedness in science based medicine. Just facts…and that’s what quackwatch is all about.

  32. Bea Foroni

    Maybe yes and maybe no.

    The third most common cause of death is doctors.
    100,000 die yearly due to side effects of medications
    80,000 die due to hospital aquired infections
    40,000 die due to hospital mistakes
    12,000 die due to unnecessary surgery
    7,000 die due to medication errors in hospitals

    All the discussion about the miracle of modern medicine, yet not much credit goes to the engineers that really are responsible for the increase in life expectancy. We live longer because we have better water, better food, better air, better housing, better education and better safety. How much is due to better doctors needs to be debated.

  33. Utakata

    On a side…

    Ewww…you liked Roadhouse? That was a cheezy “cowboy” martial arts flick. I like the movie where him and Wesley Snipes where in full drag….now that was full of awesome. Forget what that was called though. :(

    …more seriously on-topic though, I completely agree. :(

  34. 33. Utakata Says:
    I like the movie where him and Wesley Snipes where in full drag….now that was full of awesome. Forget what that was called though.

    “To Wong Foo, thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” available at IMDB: title/tt0114682/

    With a title that long, I can’t blame you for forgetting it….


  35. Mike Brock

    Everytime I see something like this, I am reminded of a man I know, who was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’s not a smoker, by the way. MRI scans seemed to suggest that the tumour was early stage, and surgery was recommended immediately. He was told that there was be a 9 month recovery, but there was an extremely good chance that with surgery and radiation therapy, he could be cancer free.

    However, his wife convinced him to say “no” to this flawed, Occidental, treatment regime and he has elected to go the traditional Chinese medicine route, believing quite honestly, that he can beat his cancer without any invasive surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or drugs.

  36. @Bea Foroni: It makes you wonder why all of those perfectly healthy people were in the hospital in the first place. Weird!

  37. Charlie Young

    If Natural News promotes only natural and not modern medical treatments for cancer, how come one of the banner ads on the site if for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Last I heard, they use modern science there to treat and hopefully cure cancer.

  38. Bea Foroni

    Naked Bunny: that’s not debate, that’s a snipe. Many people go to hospitals to visit, to give birth, to be treated for non-life threatening disease and injury. To say the patient was sick and was going to die anyhow, is not unlike the nurse who killed elderly patients beacause they were dying anyhow.

    Let us further consider;

    The amount of money spent in the US on health care is amazing. Somewhere around 15% of US GDP is spent on medical care. It is also claimed that somewhere around 80 – 90% of all medical care is spent during the patient’s last year of life.

    Think of the savings if instead of trying to cure patients, we instead concentrated on predicting the amount of life remaining for each patient – prognosis.

    Today’s system makes money when the patient is sick. Advising the patient to eat his vegtables is not profitable, treating him for diabetes is.

    The Lewis and Clark expedition of the early 1800’s carried with them small pox vacinations. It wasn’t until much later that universal immunization took place that smallpox was eliminated from the Earth (the only disease ever eliminated). The elimination of the virus was accomplished by a societal effort before the word “socialism” gained such a bad rep. I wonder if it could have been done today?

    Sorry to ramble, but I think the expenditure of such a large percent of our wealth should be approached logically and debate should be open.

    Benjamine Franklin died when he was 84 years old, “Early to bed and early to rise…”

    George Washington died at the age of 67 due to doctors’ treatment of his sore throat, “Tis well”.

  39. ND

    Mike Brock,

    Can you confirm the ending to you story even though I think we can guess what happened.

  40. I'd rather be fishin'

    @ 33. “How much is due to better doctors needs to be debated.” Nope, you’re wrong again. What a mindless load of BS. What alt-‘med’ propaganda source has those stats? No offense to engineers, but NO engineer saved my daughter’s life at birth. It was a team of well-educated, dedicated surgeons and nurses.

    I love the homeopathy ‘like cures like’ idea it’s got it’s own sort of logic. Lets put all the people with broken legs in the same room and presto: no more broken bones. I must remember to sell my stocks in medical supply companies and crutch manufacturers before this catches on.

  41. Mike Brock


    The story hasn’t yet ended. He is still alive. But he is getting a lot worse. Hoarse voice, coughing, etc.

  42. I hope I never get cancer.

    If like cures like, think of all the cancers that could be cured by huffing asbestos. Think of it as a 100% natural “mineral veil” for your lungs.

  43. ND

    Mike Brock,


  44. Thanks for the link to my Skeptical Teacher blog, Phil! :)

  45. I'd rather be fishin'

    I noticed that the article lists many people died after encounters with real medicine. The message is that they died because of it. How many people are alive because of it? That number is never even estimated by the woo-merchants. They use anecdotal ‘evidence’ to support their claims that western medicine is evil and promoted only because of the vast profits for big pharmaceutical companies.

    Well, let’s fight fire with fire. Who was saved by western medicine? Here is a short list: my mother alive and well and wondering why I never phone, my father (had cancer, died of old age), my father-in-law, a few aunts, my daughter, a couple of co-workers… I guess scientific medicine works.

    My wife wonders why I ‘preach to the choir’. Because this choir isn’t tone-deaf!

  46. Declan

    These people are exploiting the widely held fear that chemo can quickly turn somehow who appears relatively healthy into someone who is obviously desperately ill.
    Chemotherapy has come an awfully long way, both in terms of its effectiveness and the ability to limit and manage side effects. If anyone reading this is facing into chemo, or has a loved one who is, please be reassured that it is unlikely to be as bad as you think. Get the very best medical advice you can, and do not be influenced by anyone ill-intended enough to predate on your fear.

  47. I always chuckle a little when people use the amount of money the U.S. spends on health care as some sort of justification to show that our health care sucks.

    Part of the reason that U.S. health expenditures are so high is that we have a lot of high-tech, expensive equipment. IIRC, Cuba’s life expectancy is about the same as the U.S., but their expenditures are significantly lower. Why is that? Well, they have simple cots. We have mechanized, adjustable beds with all kinds of circuitry and monitoring equipment built in. That’s just one example.

    We have a lot of expensive toys that, while they may not prolong a person’s life, they can make them quite comfortable, compared to other countries. So, it’s not so simple as just comparing the amount of money we spend on health care to average life expectancy. Quality of life is also a big, big factor in there. (And, I’m not sure how much lifestyle medicine factors into those numbers.)

  48. Greg in Austin

    @Bea Foroni,

    Please cite the source of your figures. I am curious, though…

    How many people die every year from car accidents?
    How many people SURVIVE car accidents every year?

    How many people contract cancer every year?
    How many people SURVIVE cancer every year?

    How many people see a doctor every year?
    How many people SURVIVE after they’ve seen a doctor?

    When you say 100,000 people die every year from the side effects of medication, it sounds like a lot. How many people take medication AND SURVIVE?


  49. I wonder why
    75% of the physicians refuse chemotherapy ?

    The great lack of trust is evident even amongst doctors. Polls and questionnaires show that three doctors out of four (75 per cent) would refuse any chemotherapy because of its ineffectiveness against the disease and its devastating effects on the entire human organism.

    This is what many doctors and scientists have to say about chemotherapy:

    “Dr. Hardin Jones, lecturer at the University of California, after having analyzed for many decades statistics on cancer survival, has come to this conclusion: ‘… when not treated, the patients do not get worse or they even get better’. The unsettling conclusions of Dr. Jones have never been refuted”

    “The majority of the cancer patients in this country die because of chemotherapy, which does not cure breast, colon or lung cancer. This has been documented for over a decade and nevertheless doctors still utilize chemotherapy to fight these tumors.” (Allen Levin, MD, UCSF, “The Healing of Cancer”, Marcus Books, 1990).

    “Many oncologists recommend chemotherapy for almost any type of cancer, with a faith that is unshaken by the almost constant failures”.(Albert Braverman, MD, “Medical Oncology in the 90s”, Lancet, 1991, Vol. 337, p. 901

    “Several full-time scientists at the McGill Cancer Center sent to 118 doctors, all experts on lung cancer, a questionnaire to determine the level of trust they had in the therapies they were applying; they were asked to imagine that they themselves had contracted the disease and which of the six current experimental therapies they would choose. 79 doctors answered, 64 of them said that they would not consent to undergo any treatment containing cis-platinum – one of the common chemotherapy drugs they used – while 58 out of 79 believed that all the experimental therapies above were not accepted because of the ineffectiveness and the elevated level of toxicity of chemotherapy.” (Philip Day, “Cancer: Why we’re still dying to know the truth”, Credence Publications, 2000)

    “Doctor Ulrich Able, a German epidemiologist of the Heidelberg Mannheim Tumor Clinic, has exhaustively analyzed and reviewed all the main studies and clinical experiments ever performed on chemotherapy …. Able discovered that the comprehensive world rate of positive outcomes because of chemotherapy was frightening, because, simply, nowhere was scientific evidence available demonstrating that chemotherapy is able to ‘prolong in any appreciable way the life of patients affected by the most common type of organ cancer.’ Able highlights that rarely can chemotherapy improve the quality of life, and he describes it as a scientific squalor while maintaining that at least 80 per cent of chemotherapy administered in the world is worthless. Even if there is no scientific proof whatsoever that chemotherapy works, neither doctors nor patients are prepared to give it up (Lancet, Aug. 10, 1991). None of the main media has ever mentioned this exhaustive study: it has been completely buried” (Tim O’Shea, “Chemotherapy – An Unproven Procedure”)

    A new research from Australia found a 2 to 2,5 success rate for chemo..
    Is that science ?

  50. Pernille

    I have a co-work who has beaten cancer twice thanks to chemo.

    This is off topic, but I wanted to give Dr Plait a heads up about a disturbing tid-bit I saw in the paper today.

    Apparently Kirk Cameron is handing out altered versions of Darwin’s Orgin of Species, where there are 50 pages that in him mind debunks evolution.

    Here is an on-line article that mentions it,,20307814,00.html

    So in addition to getting medical advise from a celeverty, we can not get science advise from a former celeberty. I am so glad I never had a crush on that moron when I was in high school.

  51. Ernest

    @ John

    Good point.

    I heard a lot of Alt Med bashing here, but it would also appear that Big Pharma have some issues of their own. According to this article, many of the drugs put on the market by Big Pharma are “crossing the futility boundary”:'s-desperate-to-solve.aspx?page=all

    So, maybe patients are better off getting a syringe of salt water rather than the so called “chemotherapy” to treat their cancer, as, apparently, “the placebo response doesn’t care if the catalyst for healing is a triumph of pharmacology, a compassionate therapist, or a syringe of salt water. All it requires is a reasonable expectation of getting better. That’s potent medicine.”

  52. Rob in PA

    @John & Ernest – I’m sorry, let me tell you a story. My wife was diagnosed with Stage IV, metastatic breast cancer 10 months ago…basically a death sentence. We went for a second opinion at Johns Hopkins, and a team of scientifically minded surgeons and oncologists, based on their experience, couldn’t wrap their heads around the first diagnosis, because the cancer had only spread to the lymph system, and no other organs. While we waited for three months for them to reach a conclusion, the tumor in her breast tripled in size…we were scared out of our minds…but we trusted them, and it paid off. Finally they determined that she has two cancers: A Stage II breast cancer, and a large cell follicular 3B lymphoma.

    They started her on 18 weeks of R-CHOP chemotherapy for the lymphoma. The drugs in that soup were also similar to what she would have been treated with for the breast cancer alone, and within 4 months, the tumor and the lymphoma slowly vanished. She’s now had surgery to remove marginal tissue from the breast, and is continuing on a final chemo regimen to stamp out any traces of the breast cancer.

    Although she has a tremendously positive attitude, which I’m sure has helped… these diseased tissues and blood cells would not have been eradicated without the intelligent use of the drugs prescribed by the doctors. They saved her life. Had we done nothing, she would be dead, or would be dying. These doctors figured out what was wrong and fixed it. You can’t just think cancer away with pleasant thoughts.

    On the other hand, had we gone with the original doctor’s diagnosis, she would be gravely ill also, as they would not have treated the lymphoma. She is alive because we found the doctors with the most experience and training, who figured out the treatment using a scientific method, and are working toward a curative solution for my wife.

    Science and good training trump all. It’s that simple.

  53. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    Good point made about the fact that chemo may have prolonged life. I question whether the chemo is worth the suffering. I have known several people who got cut up and received chemo only to die of complications or the cancer anyways. Since we all die, quality of life seems to be a good choice when considering chemo. If I am gaining only a few more months of suffering, then I might opt for a hospice and pain killers. Are there statistics on the odds of chemo working to cure cancer, or does it usually just buy a little more time? Say, a 20% cure rate might be worth fighting for. 5% survival wouldn’t be worth getting cut up when I am still going to die anyways even if I survive the cancer. At 62 I am more concerned with quality of life than suffering longer. Fortunately, I have not had to make that choice yet.

  54. Charles J. Slavis, Jr.

    So far Doctors have saved nobody from death. They have prolonged many peoples lives prior to that eventuality however. How bad do you want the extra time?

  55. Ernest

    The link I originally posted does not appear to be working. Sorry about that.

    Here’s the copy of the article. It’s lengthy, I know, but I find it’s worth reading :

    “Merck was in trouble. In 2002, the pharmaceutical giant was falling behind its rivals in sales. Even worse, patents on five of its blockbuster drugs were about to expire, a development that would allow cheaper generics to flood the market. The company hadn’t introduced a truly new product in three years and its stock price was plummeting.

    In interviews with the press, Edward Scolnick, Merck’s research director, laid out his battle plan to restore the firm to pre-eminence. Key to his strategy was expanding the company’s reach into the antidepressant market, where Merck had lagged while competitors like Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline created some of the best-selling drugs in the world. “To remain dominant in the future,” he told Forbes, “we need to dominate the central nervous system.”

    His plan hinged on the success of an experimental antidepressant codenamed MK-869. Still in clinical trials, it looked like every pharma executive’s dream: a new kind of medication that exploited brain chemistry in innovative ways to promote feelings of well-being. The drug tested brilliantly early on, with minimal side effects, and Merck touted its game-changing potential at a meeting of 300 securities analysts.

    Behind the scenes, however, MK-869 was starting to unravel. True, many test subjects treated with the medication felt their hopelessness and anxiety lift. But so did nearly the same number who took a placebo, a look-alike pill made of milk sugar or another inert substance given to groups of volunteers in clinical trials to gauge how much more effective the real drug is by comparison. The fact that taking a faux drug can powerfully improve some people’s health – the so-called placebo effect – has long been considered an embarrassment to the serious practice of pharmacology.

    Ultimately, Merck’s foray into the antidepressant market failed. In subsequent tests, MK-869 turned out to be no more effective than a placebo. In the jargon of the pharmaceutical industry, the trials “crossed the futility boundary”.

    MK-869 wasn’t the only highly anticipated medical breakthrough to be undone in recent years by the placebo effect. From 2001 to 2006, the percentage of new products cut from development after Phase II clinical trials, when drugs are first tested against placebo, rose by 20 per cent. The failure rate in more extensive Phase III trials increased by 11 per cent, mainly due to surprisingly poor showings against placebo. Despite historic levels of industry investment in R&D, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved only 19 first-of-their-kind remedies in 2007 – the fewest since 1983 – and just 24 in 2008. Half of all drugs that fail in late-stage trials drop out because of their inability to beat sugar pills.

    The upshot is fewer new medicines available to ailing patients and more financial woes for the beleaguered pharmaceutical industry. Last November, a new type of gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease, championed by the Michael J Fox Foundation, was abruptly withdrawn from Phase II trials after unexpectedly tanking against placebo. A stem-cell startup called Osiris Therapeutics got a drubbing on Wall Street in March, when it suspended trials of its pill for Crohn’s disease, an intestinal ailment, citing an “unusually high” response to placebo. Two days later, Eli Lilly broke off tests on a new schizophrenia drug when volunteers showed double the expected level of placebo response.

    It’s not only trials of new drugs that are crossing the futility boundary. Some products that have been on the market for decades, like Prozac, are faltering in more recent follow-up tests. In many cases, these are the compounds that, in the late 90s, made Big Pharma more profitable than Big Oil. But if these same drugs were vetted now, regulators might not approve some of them. Two comprehensive analyses of antidepressant trials have uncovered a dramatic increase in placebo response since the 80s. One estimated that the so-called effect size (a measure of statistical significance) in placebo groups had nearly doubled over that time. It’s not that the old meds are getting weaker, drug developers say. It’s as if the placebo effect is somehow getting stronger.

    The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills has thrown the industry into crisis. The stakes could hardly be higher. In today’s economy, the fate of a long-established company can hang on the outcome of a handful of tests.

    Why are inert pills suddenly overwhelming promising new drugs and established medicines alike? The reasons are only just beginning to be understood. A network of independent researchers is doggedly uncovering the inner workings – and potential therapeutic applications – of the placebo effect. At the same time, drugmakers are realising they need to fully understand the mechanisms behind it so they can design trials that differentiate more clearly between the beneficial effects of their products and the body’s innate ability to heal itself. A special task force of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (a US-government research organisation) is seeking to stem the crisis by quietly undertaking one of the most ambitious data-sharing efforts in the history of the drug industry.

    The roots of the placebo problem can be traced to a lie told by a US Army nurse during World War II as Allied forces stormed the beaches of southern Italy. The nurse was assisting an anaesthetist named Henry Beecher, who was tending to US troops under heavy German bombardment. When the morphine supply ran low, the nurse assured a wounded soldier that he was getting a shot of potent painkiller, though her syringe contained only salt water. Amazingly, the bogus injection relieved the soldier’s agony and prevented the onset of shock.

    Returning to his post at Harvard after the war, Beecher became one of the nation’s leading medical reformers. Inspired by the nurse’s healing act of deception, he launched a crusade to promote a method of testing new medicines to find out whether they were truly effective. At the time, the process for vetting drugs was sloppy at best: pharmaceutical companies would simply dose volunteers with an experimental agent until the side effects swamped the presumed benefits. Beecher proposed that if test subjects could be compared to a group that received a placebo, health officials would finally have an impartial way to determine whether a medicine was actually responsible for making a patient better.

    In a 1955 paper titled “The Powerful Placebo”, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Beecher described how the placebo effect had undermined the results of more than a dozen trials by causing improvement that was mistakenly attributed to the drugs being tested. He demonstrated that trial volunteers who got real medication were also subject to placebo effects; the act of taking a pill was itself somehow therapeutic, boosting the curative power of the medicine. Only by subtracting the improvement in a placebo control group could the actual value of the drug be calculated.

    The article caused a sensation. By 1962, reeling from news of birth defects caused by thalidomide, the US Congress amended the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, requiring trials to include enhanced safety testing and placebo control groups. Volunteers would be assigned randomly to receive either medicine or a sugar pill, and neither doctor nor patient would know the difference until the trial was over. Beecher’s double- blind, placebo-controlled, randomised clinical trial – or RCT – was enshrined as the gold standard of the emerging pharmaceutical industry. Today, to win FDA approval, a new medication must beat placebo in at least two trials.

    Beecher’s prescription helped cure the medical establishment of outright quackery, but it had an insidious side effect. By casting placebo as the villain in RCTs, he ended up stigmatising one of his most important discoveries. The fact that dummy capsules can kick-start the body’s recovery engine became a problem for drug developers, rather than something that could guide doctors toward a better understanding of the healing process.

    Beecher also overreached by seeing the placebo effect at work in curing ailments like the common cold, which wane without intervention. But the triumph of his gold standard was a generation of safer medications that worked for nearly everyone.

    What Beecher didn’t foresee, however, was the explosive growth of the pharmaceutical industry. The blockbuster success of mood drugs in the 80s and 90s emboldened Big Pharma to promote remedies for a growing panoply of disorders that are intimately related to higher brain function. By attempting to dominate the central nervous system, Big Pharma gambled its future on treating ailments that have turned out to be particularly susceptible to the placebo effect.

    The tall, rusty haired son of a country doctor, William Potter, 64, has spent most of his life treating mental illness – first as a psychiatrist at the US National Institute of Mental Health and then as a drug developer. A decade ago, he took a job at Lilly’s neuroscience labs. There, working on new antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, he became one of the first researchers to glimpse the approaching storm.

    To test products internally, pharmaceutical companies routinely run trials in which a long-established medication and an experimental one compete against each other, as well as against a placebo. As head of Lilly’s early-stage psychiatric drug development in the late 90s, Potter saw that even durable warhorses like Prozac were being overtaken by dummy pills in more recent tests. The company’s next-generation antidepressants were faring badly, too, doing no better than placebo in seven out of ten trials.

    As a psychiatrist, Potter knew that some patients really do seem to get healthier for reasons that have more to do with a doctor’s empathy than with the contents of a pill. But it baffled him that drugs he’d been prescribing for years seemed to be struggling to prove their effectiveness. Thinking that something crucial may have been overlooked, Potter tapped an IT geek named David DeBrota to help him comb through the Lilly database of published and unpublished trials – including those that the company had kept secret because of high placebo response. They aggregated the findings from decades of antidepressant trials, trying to see what was changing over time. What they found challenged some of the industry’s basic assumptions about its drug-vetting process.

    Assumption number one was that if a trial were managed correctly, a medication would perform as well or as badly in a Phoenix hospital as in a Bangalore clinic. Potter discovered, however, that geographic location alone could determine whether a drug beat placebo or crossed the futility boundary. By the late 90s, for example, the classic antianxiety drug diazepam (also known as Valium) was still beating placebo in France and Belgium. But when the drug was tested in the US, it was likely to fail. Conversely, Prozac performed better in the US than it did in western Europe and South Africa. It was an unsettling prospect: regulatory approval could hinge simply on where the company chose to conduct a trial.

    Mistaken assumption number two was that the standard tests used to gauge volunteers’ improvement in trials yielded consistent results. Potter and his colleagues discovered that ratings by trial observers varied significantly from one testing site to another. It was like finding out that the judges in a tight race each had a different idea about where the finish line was.

    Potter and DeBrota’s data-mining also revealed that even superbly managed trials were subject to runaway placebo effects. But exactly why any of this was happening remained elusive. “We were able to identify many of the core issues in play,” Potter says. “But there was no clear answer to the problem.” Convinced that what Lilly was facing was too complex for any one pharmaceutical house to unravel on its own, he came up with a plan to break down the firewalls between researchers across the industry, enabling them to share data in “precompetitive space”.

    After prodding by Potter and others, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) focused on the issue in 2000, hosting a conference in Washington. For the first time in medical history, more than 500 drug developers, doctors, academics and trial designers put their heads together to examine the role of the placebo effect in clinical trials and healing in general.

    Potter’s ambitious plan for a collaborative approach to the problem eventually ran into its own futility boundary: no one would pay for it. And drug companies don’t share data, they hoard it. But the NIH conference launched a new wave of placebo research in academic labs in the US and Italy that would make significant progress toward solving the mystery of what was happening in clinical trials.

    Visitors to Fabrizio Benedetti’s clinic at the University of Turin are asked never to say the P-word around the med students who sign up for his experiments. For all the volunteers know, the trim, soft- spoken neuroscientist is hard at work concocting analgesic skin creams and methods for enhancing athletic performance. One recent afternoon in his lab, a young footballer grimaced with exertion while doing leg curls on a weight machine. Benedetti and his colleagues were exploring the potential of using Pavlovian conditioning to give athletes a competitive edge undetectable by anti-doping authorities. A player would receive doses of a performance- enhancing drug for weeks and then a jolt of placebo just before competition.

    Benedetti, 53, first became interested in placebos in the mid-90s, while researching pain. He was surprised that some of the test subjects in his placebo groups seemed to suffer less than those on active drugs. However scientific interest in this phenomenon, and the money to research it, were hard to come by. “The placebo effect was considered little more than a nuisance,” he recalls. “Drug companies, physicians and clinicians were not interested in understanding its mechanisms. They were concerned only with figuring out whether their drugs worked better.”

    Part of the problem was that response to placebo was considered a psychological trait related to neurosis and gullibility rather than a physiological phenomenon that could be scrutinised in the lab and manipulated for therapeutic benefit. But then Benedetti came across a study, done years earlier, that suggested the placebo effect had a neurological foundation. US scientists had found that a drug called naloxone blocks the pain-relieving power of placebo treatments. The brain produces its own analgesic compounds called opioids, released under conditions of stress, and naloxone blocks the action of these natural painkillers and their synthetic analogs. The study gave Benedetti the lead he needed to pursue his own research while running small clinical trials for drug companies.

    Now, after 15 years of experimentation, he has succeeded in mapping many of the biochemical reactions responsible for the placebo effect, uncovering a broad repertoire of self-healing responses. Placebo-activated opioids, for example, not only relieve pain; they also modulate heart rate and respiration. The neurotransmitter dopamine, when released by placebo treatment, helps improve motor function in Parkinson’s patients. Mechanisms like these can elevate mood, sharpen cognitive ability, alleviate digestive disorders, relieve insomnia and limit the secretion of stress-related hormones such as insulin and cortisol.

    In one study, Benedetti found that Alzheimer’s patients with impaired cognitive function get less pain relief from analgesic drugs than normal volunteers do. Using advanced methods of EEG analysis, he discovered that the connections between the patients’ prefrontal lobes and their opioid systems had been damaged. Healthy volunteers feel the benefit of medication plus a placebo boost. Patients who are unable to formulate ideas about the future because of cortical deficits feel only the effect of the drug itself. The experiment suggests that because Alzheimer’s patients don’t get the benefits of anticipating the treatment, they require higher doses of painkillers to experience normal levels of relief.

    Further research by Benedetti and others showed that the promise of treatment activates areas of the brain involved in weighing the significance of events and the seriousness of threats. “If a fire alarm goes off and you see smoke, you know something bad is going to happen and you get ready to escape,” explains Tor Wager, a neuroscientist at Columbia University. “Expectations about pain and pain relief work in a similar way. Placebo treatments tap into this system and orchestrate the responses in your brain and body accordingly.”

    In other words, one way that placebo aids recovery is by hacking the mind’s ability to predict the future. One of the most powerful placebogenic triggers is watching someone else experience the benefits of an alleged drug. Researchers call these social aspects of medicine the therapeutic ritual.

    In a study last year, Harvard Medical School researcher Ted Kaptchuk devised a clever strategy for testing his volunteers’ response to varying levels of therapeutic ritual. The study focused on irritable bowel syndrome, a painful disorder that costs more than $40 billion a year worldwide to treat. First the volunteers were placed randomly in one of three groups. One group was simply put on a waiting list; researchers know that some patients get better just because they sign up for a trial. Another group received placebo treatment from a clinician who declined to engage in small talk. Volunteers in the third group got the same sham treatment from a clinician who asked them questions about symptoms, outlined the causes of IBS and displayed optimism about their condition.

    Not surprisingly, the health of those in the third group improved most. In fact, just by participating in the trial, volunteers in this high-interaction group got as much relief as did people taking the two leading prescription drugs for IBS. And the benefits of their bogus treatment persisted for weeks afterward, contrary to the belief – widespread in the pharmaceutical industry – that the placebo response is short-lived.

    Meanwhile, the classic use of placebos in medicine – to boost the confidence of anxious patients – has been employed tacitly for ages. Nearly half of the doctors polled in a 2007 survey in Chicago admitted to prescribing medications they knew were ineffective for a patient’s condition – or prescribing effective drugs in doses too low to produce actual benefit – in order to provoke a placebo response.

    The main objections to more widespread placebo use in clinical practice are ethical, but the solutions to these conundrums can be surprisingly simple. Investigators told volunteers in one placebo study that the pills they were taking were “known to significantly reduce pain in some patients”. And the researchers weren’t lying.

    These new findings tell us that the body’s response to certain types of medication is in constant flux, affected by expectations of treatment, conditioning, beliefs and social cues.

    Moreover, a pill’s shape, size, branding and price all influence its effects on the body. Soothing blue capsules make more effective tranquilisers than angry red ones, except among Italian men, for whom the colour blue is associated with their national football team – Forza Azzurri!

    But why would the placebo effect seem to be getting stronger worldwide? Part of the answer may be found in the drug industry’s success in marketing its products. Potential trial volunteers in the US have been deluged with ads for prescription medications since 1997, when the FDA amended its policy on direct- to-consumer advertising. The secret of running an effective campaign, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Jim Joseph told a trade journal last year, is associating a particular brand-name medication with other aspects of life that promote peace of mind: “Is it time with your children? Is it a good book curled up on the couch? Is it your favourite television show? Is it a little purple pill that helps you get rid of acid reflux?” By evoking such uplifting associations, researchers say, the ads set up the kind of expectations that induce a formidable placebo response.

    The success of those ads in selling blockbuster drugs like antidepressants and statins also pushed US trials offshore as therapeutic virgins – potential volunteers who were not already medicated with one or another drug – became harder to find. The contractors that manage trials for Big Pharma have moved aggressively into Africa, India, China and the former Soviet Union. In these places, however, cultural dynamics can boost the placebo response in other ways. Doctors in these countries are paid to fill up trial rosters quickly, which may motivate them to recruit patients with milder forms of illness that yield more readily to placebo treatment. Furthermore, a patient’s hope of getting better and expectation of expert care – the primary placebo triggers in the brain – are particularly acute in societies where volunteers are clamouring to gain access to the most basic forms of medicine. “The quality of care that placebo patients get in trials is far superior to the best insurance you get in America,” says psychiatrist Arif Khan, principal investigator in hundreds of trials for companies like Pfizer and Bristol- Myers Squibb. “It’s basically luxury care.”

    Big Pharma faces additional problems in beating placebo when it comes to psychiatric drugs. One is to accurately define the nature of mental illness. The litmus test of drug efficancy in antidepressant trials is a questionnaire called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale. The HAM-D was created nearly 50 years ago based on a study of major depressive disorder in patients confined to asylums. Few trial volunteers now suffer from that level of illness. In fact, many experts are starting to wonder if what drug companies now call depression is even the same disease that the HAM-D was designed to diagnose.

    Existing tests also may not be appropriate for diagnosing disorders like social anxiety and premenstrual dysphoria – the very types of chronic, fuzzily defined conditions that the drug industry started targeting in the 90s, when the placebo problem began escalating. The neurological foundation of these illnesses is still being debated, making it even harder for drug companies to come up with effective treatments.

    What all of these disorders have in common, however, is that they engage the higher cortical centres that generate beliefs and expectations, interpret social cues and anticipate rewards. So do chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, Parkinson’s and many other ailments that respond robustly to placebo treatment. To avoid investing in failure, researchers say, pharmaceutical companies will need to adopt new ways of vetting drugs that route around the brain’s own centralised network for healing .

    Ten years and billions of R&D dollars after William Potter first sounded the alarm about the placebo effect, his message has finally got through. In the spring, Potter, who is now a VP at Merck, helped rev up a massive data-gathering effort called the Placebo Response Drug Trials Survey.

    Under the auspices of the NIH, Potter and his colleagues are acquiring decades of trial data – including blood and DNA samples – to determine which variables are responsible for the apparent rise in the placebo effect. Merck, Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi- Aventis, Johnson & Johnson and other major firms are funding the study, and the laborious process of scrubbing volunteers’ names and other personal information from the database is about to begin.

    For Potter, who used to ride along with his father on house calls in Indiana, the significance of the survey goes beyond Big Pharma finally admitting it has a placebo problem. It also marks the twilight of an era when the drug industry was confident that its products were strong enough to cure illness by themselves. “To really do the best for your patients,” he says, “you want the best placebo response plus the best drug response.”

    The pharma crisis has also finally brought together the two parallel streams of placebo research – academic and industrial. Pfizer has asked Fabrizio Benedetti to help the company figure out why two of its pain drugs keep failing. Ted Kaptchuk is developing ways to distinguish drug response more clearly from placebo response. Both are exploring trial models that treat the placebo effect as more than just statistical noise competing with the active drug.

    Ironically, Big Pharma’s attempt to dominate the central nervous system has ended up revealing how powerful the brain really is. The placebo response doesn’t care if the catalyst for healing is a triumph of pharmacology, a compassionate therapist, or a syringe of salt water. All it requires is a reasonable expectation of getting better. That’s potent medicine.”

  56. Rob in PA

    Survival rates differ depending on the type of cancer and early detection…in some cases, the survival rates are excellent (way above the 20% threshhold mentioned by Charles above), you atually may die of some other malady. In other cases, the quality of life issue should rightfully move to the forefront. My mother died of samll cell lung cancer (a non-smoker, by the way) 16 years ago. Diagnosis to her passing was 7 months. It was inoperable, and she tried 2 rounds of chemo, but it kept coming back. At that point, she said “enough” and decided to spend the rest of her short time free of the chemo and only used medication to control the pain. That was absolutely the correct decision for her and the family as we were able to have a more “normal” (whatever that means) relationship as her life came to an end…on her own terms. She was a great woman and mother, and I miss her every day.

  57. RamblinDude

    I’m sympathetic to the position that we are poisoning ourselves with bad diet and pollutants. I also agree that this country takes far too many drugs, drugs that would be unnecessary if our general health were to be improved with lifestyle changes. However, when I read “Western medicine offers no hope, no solutions,” and “But chemotherapy has never healed anyone of cancer. Not once in the history of medicine,” I am thoroughly disgusted. This is blatant, cancerous stupidity. This kind of extremism gets people killed.

  58. Funkydebunker

    I just read the Patrick Swayze article in Natural News. I have never paid much attention to this sort of thing until recently. Now that I am catching up, I am apalled, flabbergasted and utterly dismayed by the outright lies and poisonous rhetoric. I mean, I just can’t believe what I read! And I can’t believe that anyone can get away with saying these things! You know, before we had the internet people had to watch what they said in public media for fear of lawsuits. The article claims that a conspiracy exists in which people who go to cancer screening clinics are GIVEN CANCER!! That people who choose conventional cancer treatments are illiterate! That only those who choose alternative medicine are excercising free will! That the “cancer industry” seeks not to cure the disease, using it just as a tool to make money! WOW! Thank goodness we can believe people like Mike Adams, because at least he is the noble, self sacrificing type that has no interest in making money! What? You mean…..? Uh oh!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar