‘Forbidden medicine': Another view

A professor in the Department of Health and Community Services at California State University, Chico

Melinda Welsh’s article [“Forbidden medicine,” cover story, May 16] described the struggles of cancer patients to receive complementary and alternative medicine and the parallel obstacles faced by Dr. Douglas Brodie in his efforts to deliver such therapies. The article lambasted California’s Board of Medical Quality Assurance for outlawing some complementary medical treatments in California.

As a supporter of a free press, I tolerate irresponsible journalism as an undesirable outcome related to many desirable attributes associated with First Amendment rights. As a professor of public health, I am ethically obligated to correct considerable misinformation related to this article.

I suggest that before packing their bags and heading for Reno, cancer patients consider why Dr. Brodie is no longer allowed to practice in California and why he has been relegated to practicing “medicine” in a state that also allows massive gambling operations and, in some counties, prostitution.

I reserve my greatest venom not for the culpable but unfortunate cancer patients, who are doing their best to stay alive, but for the well-educated charlatans such as Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra and the less well-known Douglas Brodie. These are men who know better. They are trained at some of the finest medical schools (in the case of the first two) in the world and yet are driven either by a need for fame or profit or by delusion to violate the Hippocratic Oath.

Space does not permit a complete review of the research on the ineffectiveness and dangers of the witch’s-brew therapies that doctors of Brodie’s ilk administer. Most therapies that offer even a semblance of promise are scientifically tested and if they pass muster will eventually be evaluated in double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials. Double blinding is important because it protects both the researcher and the subject from bias by insuring that neither is aware of who is receiving the drug or a placebo.

Years of research experience have shown that a 30-40 percent improvement can be expected whenever a patient is given any assistance, whether it be prayer, sugar pills or powerful drugs.

Ms. Welsh suggests that surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy “have been something of a statistical failure.” The millions of Americans who are cancer survivors, thanks to these often highly efficacious treatments, would certainly object to this statement.

The writer also implies that, despite decreases in cancer mortality, the incidence of cancer is climbing due to the ineffectiveness of conventional therapies. The incidence of some cancers is increasing due to better early detection tests and as a result of the aging of the U.S. population. The bad news about cancer is that more people are dying from it than ever before, but this is also good news, because it’s a disease that afflicts primarily elderly people, and more people are living long enough today to die of cancer!

Back to Dr. Brodie. He noted that if he were attempting to practice in California that he would be incarcerated. There are good reasons for this. Ms. Welsh mentioned that Dr. Brodie’s waiting room contained magazines like Homeopathy Today. Homeopathy is classic quack therapy.

Adherents of homeopathy propose that the less of the medicine there is in the formula, the more effective the preparation! Many homeopathic remedies are diluted to such an extent that not even one molecule of the original medicine is left in the bottle. When confronted with this discrepancy, their amazing response is that the water into which the medicine was originally dissolved has a memory of what was in it and still retains the qualities of the medicine! If you believe this, I have some property in the Southwest you may want to buy.

Brodie is also quoted as saying he has learned that speaking his mind comes at a price. Incorrect. Dr. Brodie, like all of us, has First Amendment rights to say whatever he would like, but he does not have the right to practice disproven and dangerous forms of quackery on patients who have entrusted their health to him.

Dr. Brodie’s “conversion” to alternative medicine was enmeshed in quasi-religious and mystical overtones. Any scientist still talking about the efficacy of laetrile, a worthless and dangerous substance, is completely out of touch with modern medical reality. Terms bandied about in this article like “miraculous recovery” are the signposts of quack testimonials.

Brodie’s description of “Cancer Inc.,” another delusional view describing the collusion among pharmaceutical manufacturers, private and academic research labs, cancer nonprofits and the National Cancer Institute, defies belief. I have close contact with the director of the American Cancer Society, who served as the mentor for my doctoral studies at Indiana University. I have personal knowledge of his organization’s valiant efforts to help relieve the burden of cancer. Anyone who suggests a lack of ethical conduct on the part of the many noble individuals involved in the “war on cancer” simply is not conversant with reality.

The emphasis of the article focusing on Dr. Brodie’s arrest would leave the reader with the impression that he was the victim. His patients are in fact the true victims.

When patients mix conventional medical therapies with alternative therapies, a couple of problems arise. Often, when the conventional therapy is effective, the patient will mistakenly attribute the benefits to the alternative therapy administered by the kindly quack. Also, some alternative therapies actually interfere with potentially effective conventional approaches.

Some readers will be saying, what’s the harm in using alternative therapy? First, such therapies can result in economic harm to the user, who might expend valuable economic resources on questionable protocols, resources that could be better spent on proven remedies.

Second, direct harm may occur to the patient due to use of dangerous, often non-standardized treatments. Reports of cyanide toxicity from laetrile and ruptured colons associated with coffee enemas are examples of such dangers.

Third, indirect harm may result from failure to receive helpful therapies or from delays in accepting conventional treatments that may be more effective at an earlier stage of the disease.

Fourth, social harm may derive from individual role modeling of undesirable behaviors. Perhaps a beloved relative selects an alternative therapy, which then increases its validity in the eyes of younger family members. Organized groups advocating for alternative therapies can breed distrust of established institutions, thereby interfering with their ability to provide beneficial services.

The apparent increase in the number of adult Americans who uncritically accept alternative therapies, or for that matter conventional therapies, without demanding to know the scientific evidence supporting their efficacy may indicate a failure to properly educate the public in a fundamental understanding of the scientific method and its application to the health field. This situation may also indicate a need for more and better consumer health education, which could prepare tomorrow’s adults to become more discerning and objective judges of the efficacy of the medical products and practices available to them.