© 1997 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.
"When people of science react with too sneering
It used to be that a peculiar species of critic called a "quackbuster" dominated news about alternative cancer treatments. Healthy skepticism is one thing. But a few individuals who have a neurotic obsession with uncovering "fraud" managed to set the tone of the entire public discussion of the issue. Those who were fair and open-minded were largely relegated to an occasional letter to the editor of the Times. It was the epochal formation of the Office of Alternative (and Complementary) Medicine at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in late 1991 that signaled the beginning of the end of that sorry era.
OAM announced to the world that the examination of such methods in a fair and dispassionate way was high on the agenda of one of the U.S.'s premiere health research organization. While OAM has been slow to fulfill that early promise, there is no denying that it changed the terrain of the debate forever.
Not surprisingly, the public and then the media enthusiastically embraced that vision. We would be foolishly optimistic if we didn't note significant hold-outs: the New York Times, Science magazine, and Scientific American readily come to mind. Yet here, too, we should not imagine a monolith, much less a conspiracy. People have a right to be skeptical. Proponents have an obligation to provide proof and to assemble good data, which can be used to carry out at least the first stages of evaluation (e.g. "best case series").
Sometimes, however, those skeptics seem to have hidden agendas of their own. Some of them work directly or indirectly for forces that are threatened by the rise of prevention-based medicine. Also, with increasing frequency, we have noted an "atheist connection" to quackbusting activities. There are groups and individuals who see alternative medicine as part of an anti-science, and pro-religious trend. However, a belief in the value of alternative medicine--even its more far out dimensions--does not necessarily imply a religious point of view. It does require a sincere open-mindedness towards the wild possibilities of the universe.
Increasingly, we are treated to lectures implying that an acceptance of the possibility of such alternative approaches as mind-body healing is the prelude to a new Dark Ages.
For example, on New Year's Day, the Seattle Times ran a generally sympathetic story of called "Healing Hands." Following that, they were assailed by a handful readers who detected a religious subtext in the story. One Kurt Denke wrote, "The 'laying on of hands' does not heal people. It did not heal people in ancient times, and it does not heal them now. We live in an age of science and reason. Why must The Times promote barbaric superstition" (1/4/97). Chill out, Kurt. Get a massage.
Another reader of "Healing Hands" wrote that the author should have consulted with the very objective American Medical Association and The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, pronounced "psi-cop") for "background information on this controversial treatment." We know how "very objective" such organizations have been.
When the St. Petersburg Times ran a similar story on the "Many Paths of Healing" (12/29/96), they received a bitter reply from a doctor, Gary P. Posner, M.D., who described himself as founder of the Tampa Bay Skeptics (Isn't that one of those phenomenal new franchise teams?)
"The media ought to be ashamed of their uncritically positive coverage" of "alternative therapies," said the irate physician. But the media has no shame, Dr. Posner. We learned that over a period of 75 years, when it joined with the quackbusters in hounding legions of alternative practitioners. Do you remember the AMA's attack on the chiropractic profession? The courts declared that one a conspiracy. (See the famous case of "Wilk v. AMA") Where was that shameful media then? Nowhere. But now that the shoe is on the other foot, conventional medicine just can't take the pain.
These critics of Therapeutic Touch are themselves out of touch with the public. The public is enthusiastic about the potential of mind-body medicine. This should be encouraged. But many medical doctors are still locked into a mechanistic and arrogant view of the "real world." They cling to a 19th century paradigm as we prepare to enter the 21st century. There is no room in their out-dated world view not just for esthetic or religious insights, but for the paradoxes of quantum physics. Quantum mechanics is not mysticism, to be sure, but it does reveal that the world is not synonymous with what it seems to senses.
It is heartening that the public intuitively grasps that there is potential in all sorts of approaches to illness, not just the drug-based medicine of conventional practice. This openness fosters the popularity of the alternative and complementary practitioners. Regardless of how many seminars the AAAS holds against alternative medicine, the public will have the final say. The doctors will come along, because they cannot afford to do otherwise. George Bernard Shaw made this same point in the preface to Doctor's Dilemma. The doctors wanted to shut all invalids up in stuffy, overheated rooms. No light, no air. It was the young people of the late nineteenth century who demanded a change. Doctors who refused to throw open the blinds were branded as hopelessly outdated. And so one by one they all gave in to public pressure. Isn't it time to throw open the windows of conventional medicine?
NOTE TO READER: Dr. Posner has replied to this article at the following site: http://members.aol.com/garypos/critics.html#Cancer_Chronicles
The big medical news over Christmas (1996) came, ironically, from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a publication that has not exactly been in the forefront of those championing a nutritional or holistic approach to the cancer problem. They reported on a study, conducted at the University of Arizona, on the value of selenium supplements in preventing cancer. Among people who took a daily dose of 200 micrograms of selenium the U of A scientists found:
"This is the first intervention trial to show that a nutrient can reduce the risk of cancer," said Larry Clark, associate professor at the Arizona Cancer Center. Pretty extraordinary. Pplaying it safe, Dr. Clark then cautioned the public not to take selenium supplements. One reason for the scientists' unease is that the study was initially launched to see if selenium would prevent skin cancer--and oddly it didn't. But the mineral appeared to induce "apoptosis" or "suicide" in many other kinds of susceptible cancer cells, including the big killers.
Strange advice, considering that 200 micrograms of selenium is already found in many good vitamin/mineral formulas, and costs mere pennies. In fact, the cost of one bone marrow transplant would practically pay for selenium supplements for the entire nation! And imagine what these results might have been if the people in question had also taken good, organic vitamin E, vitamin C, glutathione, etc.
Does conventional medicine have anything else to compare with this? Besides vitamins and minerals, what can medicine offer us to prevent prostate or colon cancer? How many more people will die before the A.M.A. finally does recommend that people take a harmless, inexpensive supplement pill?
Not surprisingly, the study garnered a great deal of attention in the professor's home state (Phoenix Gazette 12/24/96 and Arizona Republican 12/25/96). Unmentioned in all this excitement was where these ideas originally came from. The value of selenium as an anti-cancer agent was unknown or derided when it was proposed by Emmanuel Revici, M.D., the New York alternative doctor, decades ago. Dr. Revici, a wonderful man who just turned 100, has been a favorite target of the quackbusters over the years, who had fun deriding his "nonsensical" and "unscientific" views on the importance of selenium in cancer prevention. Too bad the A.M.A. doesn't give out Belatedly Recognized Genius awards.
On New Year's Day, 1997, The Boston Globe reprinted a Reuters dispatch that raises high hopes about grapes. Red grape skins, it turns out, contain a substance called resveratrol. According to a well-known researcher, Dr. John Pezzuto of the University of Illinois at Chicago, this naturally occurring phenol "has multiple modes of action, inhibiting cancer growth at a lot of different stages, which is unusual." These stages are initiation of DNA damage, transformation of the cell into cancer, and growth and spread of the tumor.
Although resveratrol was first isolated from a Peruvian legume called Cassia quinquangulata, it was later found in grapes, particularly red grapes, as well as in peanuts, mulberries and other plants. It may also be one of the compounds responsible for wine's proven ability to protect against atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease, according to other reports from the University of Toronto (Clin Chim Acta, 235: 2, 1995 Mar 31, 207-19). Great--another excuse to drink wine! (If you do so, try to make it an organic red, since grapes are very heavily sprayed with pesticides.)
Again, this makes us think of another approach long derided by the quackbusters. This was "The Grape Cure," popularized in the U.S. in the 1930s by a South African woman named Johanna Brandt. You can sometimes find her slim volume on a dusty shelf in the health food store. Brandt was herself drawing on an old European tradition which held that grapes had almost magical health-restoring properties when eaten in abundance.
I own an old book called "A System of Physiologic Therapuetics" by Solomon Solis Cohen, A.M., M.D. (Philadelphia: Blakiston's, 1901). In it, Dr. Cohen shows that there were over a dozen clinics and spas administering the grape cure in northern Europe at the turn of the 20th century.
In Baden-Baden (still a center of interest in alternative medicine) doctors 100 years ago were combining the "grape cure" with other alternative practices, such as the "Terrain Cure," i.e. graduated walking and climbing exercises.
Of course, these were eventually branded as classic quackery by the drug-oriented doctors. These new reports from very respectable universities suggest there may have been something to the "grape cure" after all. Again, we hope that the A.M.A. will reserve a spot in its alternative Pantheon for the much maligned Ms. Brandt.
The Sacramento Bee ran an interesting story about a 12-year-old Paiute Indian boy caught in a tug of war between conventional and alternative medicine (1/15/97). The Paiute boy, Thomas Molina, was diagnosed as having Hodgkin's disease in Oregon last February. Hodgkin's disease is conventionally treated with radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy. His mother, Katherine Quartz, favored native Paiute treatments, however. These included herbal teas, compresses and prayer.
When she turned down chemotherapy and attempted to provide these natural treatments for her son, the Sacramento District Attorney charged her with felony child endangerment. She eluded authorities in Oregon, California and Nevada while Indian healers tried their traditional treatments on the boy. He was in his 42nd day of that non-toxic form of treatment when he and his mother were apprehended by authorities in Oregon last October.
The local Walker River Paiute Tribe in Schurz, Nevada then ordered the boy to undergo chemotherapy together with traditional medicine. But in January, a higher judicial body, the Inter-Tribal Court of Appeals of Nevada, ordered that the boy should be allowed 120 days of just Indian medicine, provided that he received CAT scans every 30 days to monitor his progress.
This was very unusual, one of the first times that any a court has sided with a non-conventional treatment in the case of a child. The court officials stated that they had received no evidence that the Indian medicine would not work, however, and considered it a legitimate alternative to allopathic (Western) medicine.
Ms. Quartz's lawyer who filed the successful appeal that said the chemotherapy was "wholly unnecessary" and that Molina looked like a concentration camp victim after taking it. According to the Bee, the boy's palpable tumors do appear to be shrinking, but, predictably, both sides are claiming credit for the apparent improvement.
The New York Daily News has never been known for its friendliness towards alternative treatments. We haven't forgotten their treatment of the aforementioned Dr. Revici as well as the late Lawrence Burton. But they do not want to lag too far behind their readers, either. And so they are apparently getting on the bandwagon.
In a small article entitled "A Dog's Holistic Tale" (1/19/97), they report on the unusual fate of a sad little pooch named Cujo, nothing like its eponymous hero of Steven King fame. Twelve year old Cujo has been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He was in pain, could not walk or even eat. "Putting him to sleep" seemed like the kindest option for his owner, Ed Tahaney. Instead, he took Cujo to a holistic veterinarian named Michele Yasson. Dr. Yasson used homeopathy, licorice for the pain, coenzyme Q10, bee pollen, vitamin C and baby food. Two weeks later, Cujo also had acupuncture. "The results were amazing," said Mr. Tahaney. "He's still old, but he can walk, run, jump and eat like a horse. He's a New Age dog." (Dr. Yasson's phone number is 212-658-3923.)
An important editorial in the highly regarded Philadelphia Inquirer deals specifically with Therapeutic Touch, but also pertains to all alternative medicine. The editorial states that "there's an excess of junk science out there--particularly when it comes to the arts of healing." Nevertheless, it stipulates that "there's no shortage of narrow-minded experts out there" as well.
"When people of science react with too sneering a skepticism to the claims of the too credulous, they spit upon opportunities to learn. And real harm is sometimes done."
The editorial also points to the fact that in medicine both breast feeding and acupuncture had to survive periods of "utter expert scorn." A few folk remedies once scorned have now been proven to have a sound medical basis (the very point we were making about selenium and the grape cure).
"To have an expert's grasp of the complexities of a field is a fine thing. It's another, not so fine thing, for experts to assume no other discipline, no other person lacking their credentials could ever offer them insight or useful data."
Philadelphia is less than 100 miles from New York City. Perhaps the spirit of reasonableness is slowly creeping up the East Coast, poised to infiltrate the citadel of the New York Times? Will those skeptics at the Times science writing desk finally open a crack to alternative medicine? (And how will Gina Kolata managed to get out of the corner she painted herself into with her front-page story on Dr. Burzynski last year?)
Anyone can change, however. Take the case of Ms. Jane Brody who led the pack in her attack on laetrile in the 1970s. And yet the surprise of last fall was her sudden "conversion" to at least one type of alternative treatment. It came about because of a very painful and intractable medical condition of her own. (As someone once said, "When it comes to yourself, n=1," meaning that there's one "mere anecdote" we always believe, and that's our own health history.)
In a follow-up article (1/15/97) , she reported that the deterioration in her knees (a kind of arthritis) was about "30 percent better" on a combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate.That's 30 percent better than nothing. The ingredients for this treatment are found in the health food store and cost Ms. Brody about $1.67 per day. She ends her article with her reflex "Needed: Healthy Skepticism" and "Let Buyers Beware" warnings. However, her example will make many converts out of previous hard-core opponents.
If Jane Brody is now shopping in the health food store, can her science writer colleagues be far behind?