Originally published in July-August 2004 icon
Someone (I'm sure I should know who) once said that it is easier to destroy than to build. Whoever he or she was, they must have been observing the British. Sadly, criticism is our national pastime.
He is so overworked he dispenses advice at the rate of machine gun bullets, but with dignified charm
My friend has a minor illness, only her second in about three years. She goes along to the Derby Medical Center in Epsom. Her Doctor there, Dr Harris is in his early thirties and is quite excellent. He is so overworked he dispenses advice at the rate of machine gun bullets, but with dignified charm. It is not his fault his office is at a temperature more akin to a field hospital in Iraq. The trendy steel and glass building is a suntrap and the air conditioning too noisy to be used. But he soldiers on smiling.
In February the British Journal of Cancer carried a report by several scientists who had set out to study exactly who took supplements and what they took. The answer, according to their research was 51.6 per cent of the population, highest among cancer patients, and then they listed some of those supplements.
However in writing the article for the BJC, they seem to have become more than a little 'carried away'. The article started with the paragraph,' Many cancer patients use Complimentary Alternative Medicines, (note the word supplement is now consigned to the waste disposal unit), but may not be aware of the potential risks.'
(So immediately we find that this is really a piece about potential risks, not about supplement taking).
'There are no studies quantifying such risks.' True, but then nor are there for chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.
This tome contains almost 4000 scientific references, there for all to read
The 'study' then went on to contain such gems as, 'indications, particularly anti-carcinogen effects are unproven.' A chap called John Boik might disagree with this. He is at the top of the MD Anderson Cancer Centre in Houston and in March 2001 released a book called 'Natural Compounds in Cancer Therapy'. This tome contains almost 4000 scientific references, there for all to read. Of course, you may decide that even my small attempts in 'It's only Natural' each month with certain 'Complementary Alternative Medicines' (CAMs) are proof enough.
Another little gem was the sentence, 'Supplements may be associated with adverse effects including bleeding.' Imagine for one moment that I wrote a similar sentence, 'Chemotherapy may be associated with adverse effects including bleeding.' Irresponsible would be just one of the charges I would level at myself.
But then this 'study' also goes on to say ' Doctors need to devote time to discussing CAM's with patients.' Have these scientists actually seen Dr Harris and the thousands of doctors like him in action? Are doctors educated in nutrition and supplements? Do they have time to read the latest Nobel Prize paper on Glycoproteins? I have already established that my daughter's oncologist, however excellent he may be at his job, has little qualification to ' discuss CAM's' with her.
And then we come to the chap who has been used by several national newspapers to comment on the above 'study'. He is a 'complementary expert'. He further warned of the dangers of CAM's in the press.
This gentleman has himself also recently produced a study, this time on websites featuring health information. There is no doubt some websites can contain extreme, even unproven, views.
Who will be judging the quality of the scientific evidence anyway?
However in his research on these websites, he shows his true colours. 'Major cancer organisations should investigate websites and administer a 'seal of approval' for safety and reliability.' Three of the 32 sites he reviewed were of 'high risk', because ' they discouraged cancer patients from using conventional treatments.' This may be true but would he deem other sites to be of 'high risk' because they discouraged cancer patients from using CAM's? Who will be judging the quality of the scientific evidence anyway? The test of a drug is the 'clinical trial', pass that and the drug's science is acceptable. This is why Catherine was offered a brain tumour drug tested on just 53 people for one year. Meanwhile 17,000 people in France take five antioxidants and death from cancer falls by 37 per cent (Su Vi Max study) but do doctors recommend their patients take zinc, selenium, C, E and beta carotene? Is this research 'acceptable'?
In the USA they have something we do not in the UK. They have the National Institute for Complementary Health. Set up to review and monitor Alternative and Complementary therapies it also prevents unilateral, unjustified, misinformed and misinforming criticism of such work. As a result certain extremist critics of such therapies have been silenced or driven 'underground'. Quackwatch, an internet site, sees its role as 'exposing' such complementary and alternative hype. The same study did approve two sites in their research findings. One was, you've guessed it already, Quackwatch.
Our aim is to bring you all the information, so you can make informed
At icon - and on our website - our aim is to bring you all the information, so you can make informed choices. We have but one responsibility. The patient. We believe we report objectively and honestly. One month a review of breast cancer drugs, another a review of fish oils and their anti-carcinogenic effects. (The Royal Marsden are now giving vitamin D to breast cancer patients)
At icon we find it fascinating that scientists are making ever more discoveries on the role of vitamin D or vitamin K in the anti- cancer process. Or that women with breast cancer are found to be deficient in vitamin B-12, or in vitamin C or omega 3.
We get alarmed that a vet wouldn't think twice about giving the farmer's cow supplements when it falls sick, but a doctor won't prescribe them for the farmer's child.
But then we see ourselves as builders, not critics. Maybe we're not British.