From Abracadabra to Zombies
The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter
Volume 13 No. 10
“I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them.” ― Susan Sontag
Helps Prevent Cancer and Kills the Cancer It Didn't Help Prevent
Many cancer patients are desperately looking for a magic-bullet herb, spice, enema, or supplement that will destroy cancer cells or prevent them from multiplying. The number of anti-cancer products for sale on the Internet seems endless. Sellers of these items that allegedly help fight cancer by stimulating the immune system know how desperate their customers are to be relieved of their disease and its symptoms. There isn't a vitamin or mineral supplement, an herb, a plant or animal part that can be powderized (is that a word?), a fungus, an alga, a yeast, or enzyme that isn't being trumpeted as the next golden bullet to destroy cancer cells before they know what's hit them. But does any of this stuff work? Does anything prevent cancer?
If by 'prevent cancer' you mean 'stops cancer from happening in anybody at any time,' then I don't think anything prevents cancer. There are, however, many things that lower the risk of cancer: not smoking, not being obese, not drinking to excess on a regular basis, exercising daily, and eating a nutritious diet. There are many nutritious diets, but none of them include large helpings of sugary drinks and sugary or salty snacks, excessive alcohol or heroin consumption, large quantities of processed foods, and daily dinner at a local fast-food restaurant. (No one diet is perfect for everybody. Some people, for example, have to consider not just what might be good for the immune system, muscles, lungs, heart, etc., but what won't raise blood sugar levels too much or what won't interfere with chemotherapy drugs, blood pressure medicine, Lipitor, etc. Many cancer patients have to consider factors like replenishing minerals lost through diarrhea or foods that don't trigger the release of certain hormones or enzymes. Everybody with cancer should consult with a nutritionist or at least read the literature about nutrition your oncologist's office should have supplied you with. Or go on the Internet and seek out some science-based nutrition sites. For example, a group of UK nurses has posted a booklet on caring for patients with neuroendocrine tumors [NETs]: chapter six includes much valuable information on nutrition pertinent to those with some form of neuroendocrine cancer. Another great resource for NET patients is a video of a talk given by Greta Macaire, a registered dietitian at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. For more about her work click here. The American Diabetes Association, The American Cancer Society, and the like have pages devoted to providing information on nutrition.)
For some people, lowering the risk of cancer may prevent cancer. You may not smoke, but you may still get lung cancer despite all your efforts to lower your risk of cancer. Or, you might be a person who, had she smoked all her life, would have gotten lung cancer. You just don't know how being in a risk group that has a lower risk of cancer because of not smoking, not being obese, exercising regularly, eating nutritiously, etc., applies to you as an individual. But you do know that the people in your group of non-smokers, etc., stand a better chance of not getting cancer than those in the groups of smokers, etc.
So, rather than look for a magic bullet--a single food, supplement, or lifestyle choice, etc.--that will prevent cancer, I think we would be wiser to look for things that lower the risk of getting cancer and alleviate some of the nastier symptoms of various cancers and uglier side effects of various treatments. You cannot change your genome, but you may be able to keep your immune system in top form by ingesting certain foods and drinks and avoiding others, by exercising regularly, by not smoking, and by keeping your weight at a healthy level. And you can do this whether you are trying to prevent cancer or are trying to live with cancer the best you can.
Some cancers can't be traced to any particular cause. We don't know why they occurred in this person at this time. Some of these cancers will kill their hosts and there is nothing we can do to prevent this from happening. No supplement, no amount of green tea, milk thistle, curcumin, IP-6, beetroot, black cumin seed oil, cannabis, or selenium would have prevented the cancer from happening or stopped it from growing. The case of death-with-dignity advocate Brittany Maynard is an example. She was diagnosed with stage 4 glioblastoma, a particularly nasty type of malignant brain tumor. She could have survived for months with treatment but sometimes survival is not worth it. She chose to avoid the inevitable pain and suffering from horrific headaches and seizures she would have had to endure, and she prevented her loved ones from having to suffer with her. There are more than 120 types of primary brain tumors. There are dozens of different kinds of leukemia. It is highly unlikely that a diet rich in cinnamon or turmeric can prevent all these cancers from occurring. Even so, there may be good reasons for including spices and herbs in a healthy diet. Some of these items promoted widely by advocates of so-called integrative medicine might actually have some value for cancer patients and those wishing to maintain a healthy immune system.
We have every right to be skeptical of the many outrageous and unsupportable claims made by many advocates of integrative medicine. But we should not be so skeptical that we reject beneficial treatments. Many vitamin-and-mineral-pilll advocates hype and promote supplements that are unnecessary or worthless. But there are times when people do need supplements. Having cancer might be one of those times for some people. Likewise, we may not usually associate nutrition and relaxation techniques with science-based medicine, but we should. Defenders of integrative medicine have co-opted nutrition, exercise, and relaxation techniques into their corral, a menagerie that includes acupuncture, cannabis, and a host of other medical modalities based on petri dish studies, rodent studies, anecdotes, self-deception, wishful thinking, or small and nonreplicated studies whose conclusions are consistent with the alties' wishes. It should go without saying that killing cancer in a petri dish or in lab rodents does not translate into killing cancer cells in living human beings.
Black Cumin Seed Oil: a Cure for Cancer?
Nigella sativa, or black cumin, is a flowering plant that grows in Europe, India, and the Arabian Peninsula. Its seeds have been used for cooking and medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Some promoters of black cumin seed oil call it a "miracle remedy" with "amazing curative powers." They think the efficacy of this stuff is supported by the fact that it was found in King Tut's tomb. I don't think that fact matters one way or the other. Shamans have been prescribing placebos for thousands of years. So what?
My skeptical radar ears stood erect, however, when I read the following quote from quackaloon Gary Null: “Black cumin oil is probably the single most important oil you can put in your system.” Despite being recommended by the Null Hypothesis--which makes it a near-certainty that this stuff is bogus--I decided to investigate the cancer-healing claims for black cumin seed oil anyway. I should admit up front that before starting my inquiry into this oil, I was confident that the best-case scenario I'd find would be that the oil has killed cancer cells in the petri dish and had had some sort of beneficial effect on lab rodents. The evidence that this oil has any value for humans, I suspected, is, at best, waiting in the wings.
One of the leading proponents of black cumin oil as an anti-cancer agent is Bharat B. Aggarwal, Ph.D., author of Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease. One component of this black cumin seed oil is thymolquinone or TQ, which Aggarwal and other scientists have found hindered tumor growth in laboratory animals. Apparently, TQ protects cells from oxidative damage and has anti-inflammatory properties. Aggarwal claims that this herb may be effective against ovarian, prostate, breast, colon, and pancreatic cancers. The operative expression here is the weasler 'may be effective.' Aggarwal also claims that black seed can initiate cancer cell death and halt the process of metastization. Maybe it can, but whether it does initiate cancer cell death or halt metastases in humans is yet to be proved.
Unfortunately, Aggarwal's work is currently under a cloud of investigation regarding images he used to support his many claims about the curative and cancer-fighting powers of herbs and spices. He is an internationally respected author of hundreds of articles, owner of over 30 patents, and co-editor of more than a dozen books. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.
Then there is curcumin....
Joe Mercola loves it...naturally. He starts off his paean to spices--Turmeric Compound Boosts Regeneration of Brain Stem Cells, and More--in his usual ignorant way: "Many spices have powerful medicinal properties, which is why they've been used to promote healing for thousands of years prior to the advent of patented synthetic drugs." No. Spices were used as medicine because real medicine wasn't invented yet. Our ancient ancestors didn't know any better. As humans evolved, we made progress. We actually tested herbs and spices to see if they really do what our ignorant ancestors thought they did. Some did; some didn't. Some humans even go so far as to note that just because something kills cancer cells in a petri dish or a lab rat, doesn't mean it will do any good for a human. Guess what? That is the case with curcumin. The evidence stops at the petri dish and the lab rat. Studies that purport to show anticancer effects from curcumin in humans aren't here yet.
The American Cancer Society has a page on curcumin:
Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, is an antioxidant. Antioxidants are compounds often found in plants that can protect the body’s cells from damage caused by activated molecules known as free radicals. Laboratory studies have also shown that curcumin interferes with several important molecular pathways involved in cancer development, growth, and spread. Researchers have reported that curcumin inhibited the formation of cancer-causing enzymes in rodents....
Curcumin can kill cancer cells in laboratory dishes and also slows the growth of the surviving cells. Curcumin has been found to reduce development of several forms of cancer in lab animals and to shrink animal tumors.
Human studies of curcumin in cancer prevention and treatment are in the very early stages. In scientific studies, curcumin does not absorb well from the intestine, so that big doses must be taken for even small amounts to get into the blood circulation. Large doses of curcumin would need to be taken in order to study any effects it might have in the body....
When used as a spice in foods, turmeric is considered safe. More research is needed to establish the safety of turmeric when used in herbal remedies. Little is known about the potential risks of taking the larger amounts used to treat illnesses. Taking large amounts by mouth may result in stomach pain, gas, indigestion, and nausea. Skin rash and stomach ulcers have been reported after long-term use, and allergic reactions are possible. People who are allergic to ginger or yellow food colorings are more likely to be allergic to turmeric. There have also been reports of rashes (contact dermatitis) after touching curcumin.
A recent safety study in humans suggested that curcumin changes metabolism of oxalate, a substance that can form kidney stones. The researchers urged caution in use of this supplement by people with other conditions that make them susceptible to kidney stones.
People taking blood-thinning medications, drugs that suppress the immune system, or non-steroidal pain relievers (such as ibuprofen) should avoid turmeric because of the risk of harmful drug interactions. In animal and laboratory studies, turmeric made certain anti-cancer drugs less effective. Antioxidant supplements can interfere with the effectiveness of chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Patients who are in cancer treatment should talk to their doctor before taking vitamins, minerals, or other supplements. (emphasis added)
In other words, the jury is still out on the potential benefits and harms of curcumin.
What About Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for Cancer Patients?
Above, I mentioned that some UK Nurses have published an online booklet for neuroendocrine cancer patients. Here is reprint of a paragraph on vitamins and minerals::
It is recommended that all patients with NETs take standard multi-vitamin and mineral supplements. The best way of meeting the need for vitamins and minerals is still to eat a varied diet and it is important that major food groups are not excluded from the diet. However, in the case of chronic diarrhoea, general reduced dietary intake, or in the presence of weight loss, patients may be experiencing general vitamin and mineral deficiency. In patients with neuroendocrine tumours that overproduce the hormone serotonin, there may be a deficiency of the vitamin B3 . In such cases it may be beneficial to add B-vitamins to the diet. This should be assessed in consultation with a doctor or clinical nutritionist. Good sources of vitamin B3 can be found in protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, and fish, as well as corn products and vegetables.
I could find only one study, however, that found evidence of healthy people taking a daily multivitamin supplement that affected cancer rates positively. In that study of 2,669 male physicians, over the course of a decade men taking a daily multivitamin had a statistically significant reduction in the incidence of total cancer (multivitamin and placebo groups, 17.0 and 18.3 events, respectively, per 1000 person-years....).
Martha M Grout, MD, MD(H) Dedicated to the Natural Treatment of Cancer
Her name and claim to treat cancer "the natural way" can be found on a website claiming to be the Arizona Center for Advanced Medicine. She is the founder and director of this great center in the desert that I'd never heard of until recently. I came upon Grout's name in an article about how she killed an 18-month-old girl with eye cancer by poisoning her with cyanide administered as that well-known natural cancer cure laetrile. Some of the natural-cure folks call laetrile 'vitamin B17.'
Laetrile is not a vitamin and there is no scientific evidence that cancer is caused by a vitamin or nutrient deficiency. The earliest promoters of laetrile as a cancer cure claimed that cancer is a "metabolic disorder" preventable and treatable by eating the right foods, avoiding the wrong foods, and ingesting substances like laetrile. (Metabolism is the process your body uses to get or make energy from the food you eat.*) If the reader is interested in what the science currently says about the causes of cancer, I recommend The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (2010). Here is an excerpt:
Cancer, we now know, is a clonal disease. Nearly every known cancer originates from one ancestral cell that, having acquired the capacity of limitless cell division and survival, gives rise to limitless numbers of descendants....Cancer is an age-related disease—sometimes exponentially so. The risk of breast cancer, for instance, is about 1 in 400 for a thirty-year-old woman and increases to 1 in 9 for a seventy-year-old. Every gene in every cell in your body has the potential to mutate. Some of those mutations affect the genes that regulate cell division in ways that cause cancer. Finding just those mutations and developing ways to mitigate or eliminate their uncontrolled effects is the center of today's cancer research.*
It is a long way, however, from knowing that cancer cells need energy and that finding ways to prevent cancer cells from getting that energy can play an important part in cancer treatment to claiming that cancer is a metabolic disorder. Anyway, laetrile has not been proven effective for treating anything and has been shown to be harmful in cases such as that of the infant treated by Dr. Grout. (In case you are wondering the MD(H) she uses in her title is a proud display of her status as a homeopath. Her website claims that she got her MD degree from the Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1971.) Directly under her display of titles on her website there is a quote worth noting. Grout says "I do not see that pharmaceutical medicine helps people heal from chronic illness." I wonder what she means by 'heal.' It is true that pharmaceuticals can't cure cancer or high blood pressure or diabetes. Pharmaceuticals can, however, slow the growth of some cancers and keep blood pressure and blood sugar levels under control. Pharmaceuticals allow millions of people to live full and active lives with being cured or healed.
Grout is a devotee of Nobel Prize winner and biochemist Otto H. Warburg, who trumpeted the idea that "the root cause of cancer is oxygen deficiency." He claimed oxygen deficiency creates "an acidic state in the human body." Cancer cells "are anaerobic (do not breathe oxygen) and cannot survive in the presence of high levels of oxygen, as found in an alkaline state, according to Warburg. It should be noted that Warburg's Nobel Prize, awarded in 1931, had nothing to do with his views or work on cancer. He got the prize for his "for his discovery of the nature and mode of action of the respiratory enzyme." Furthermore, his views on cancer cells being anaerobic have been shown to be wrong. Peter Lechner cites G. N. Ling:
Because Warburg was able, experimentally, to initiate malignancy by reducing oxygen supplies to fetal sheep cells in vitro, and because of high lactic acid output by malignant cells, he became convinced that malignancy must be a state of anaerobic (fermentation) metabolism, which he likened to that of lower life forms. The Warburg generalization, which understandably persisted for many years, has since been disproven. (In Search of the Physical Basis of Life. NY and London: Plenum Press; 1984:701.)
There is some interesting cancer research being done that involves metabolism and oxygen, but it isn't being done by naturopaths. Two years ago, UCLA reported the following:
Compared to normal cells, cancer cells have a prodigious appetite for glucose, the result of a shift in cell metabolism known as aerobic glycolysis or the "Warburg effect." Researchers focusing on this effect as a possible target for cancer therapies have examined how biochemical signals present in cancer cells regulate the altered metabolic state.
Now, in a unique study, a UCLA research team led by Thomas Graeber, a professor of molecular and medical pharmacology, has investigated the reverse aspect: how the metabolism of glucose affects the biochemical signals present in cancer cells.
In research published June 26  in the journal Molecular Systems Biology, Graeber and his colleagues demonstrate that glucose starvation — that is, depriving cancer cells of glucose —activates a metabolic and signaling amplification loop that leads to cancer cell death as a result of the toxic accumulation of reactive oxygen species, the cell-damaging molecules and ions targeted by antioxidants like vitamin C.
The findings by Graeber and his colleagues should lead to future studies on how oncogenic signaling and metabolism are connected. We can hope that this research will lead to new and improved therapies that target cancer metabolism.
Nutmeg and Diarrhea
Nutmeg may have been the first thing your granny reached for when you had diarrhea as a child. Apparently, this folk remedy is still popular and has graduated to the ranks of stardom in the aromatherapist's cabinet of magic oils. Does it work? Lots of people swear by it. They took nutmeg with sugar, milk, or water and later their diarrhea went away. What better evidence does one need than the personal experience of thousands of people who are totally ignorant of the post hoc fallacy? Add that evidence to the lack of interest in finding cases of people with diarrhea who took nutmeg but didn't get the results they were looking for and you have a slam-dunk case for the power of selective thinking. But, really, what is the evidence that nutmeg is a good choice of medicine for diarrhea? I'm afraid the scientific evidence isn't very strong. The best evidence I could find was only willing to go so far as to state that using small amounts of nutmeg isn't likely to do you any harm.
Large doses, however, may not be good for your health. Nutmeg contains myristica oil, which can be poisonous. You can buy the oil online for about $400 per liter for the organic variety (sold in 100ml vials). The non-organic variety is only about $250 per liter. But the website that sells this stuff for these prices doesn't make any claims about the health benefits of their product. Amazon.com sells a 2 oz. bottle of myristica tincture for about $15, but it, too, doesn't make any claims about health benefits. HawaiiPharm, which manufactures the tincture sold on Amazon, lists its product as an aphrodisiac, but makes no specific claims about this, obviously, very versatile essential oil
Some advocates recommend fresh grated nutmeg to combat diarrhea. Others say nutmeg can be taken in capsule form or in off-the-shelf tins of already-grated nuts with good results. What is good for cookies may not be good for diarrhea and vice-versa. Those who defend freshly grated insist that you need the fresh oil in the nut to combat diarrhea. I found the following explanation on a website blog for cancer patients:
[Nutmeg] does work but not if in a capsule. You need the fresh oil contained in the nutmeg nut and the nuts have to be fresh. The ones in the supermarket are ages old by the time they make it to the shelf. Ok for cookies and stuff but not for diminishing diarrhea.
I bought whole nutmeg at Penzy's Spice. You can order online. They are the freshest and highest quality I found. You can purchase a small paddle grater - kind of like a long file - that grates the nut pretty nicely. Tiny peppercorn grinders require you to break the nutmeg up too much to fit into the grinder. Once grated on one side, keep the nut as wrapped up as possible in the fridge. Now for the really tedious part. You have to grate fresh nutmeg - at least a teaspoon full - onto a piece of waxed paper or some other impervious surface. Then it's best if you can just dump it into your mouth and wash it down. Most folks can't do this but you can mix it in a small amount of honey or liquid and swallow it.
Nutmeg oil (which contains a substance similar to opium) is volatile and the stuff you need evaporates (oxidizes) pretty fast. Oxidation ruins it, so putting it in a capsule means the nutmeg is already at least somewhat oxidized and not going to work as well.
Grinding it up in a blender is also not going to work unless you're going to swallow all of it immediately. You need a heaping teaspoon of grated nutmeg after every meal. Like I said, it does work but freeze-dried black raspberry (powder or extract) works way better.
Although it has its own drawbacks, it's still more effective, less work and tastes better. I got really tired of taking out my grater at a restaurant and grating up some nutmeg after the last course. Recently, I started taking two elderberry capsules (Puritan Pride 1250 mg) to substitute for one dose of BRP daily but it didn't do the job taking it three times a day with no BRP. If all else fails, tincture of opium works but makes me nauseous, I'm very sensitive to opiates of any kind. They always make me vomit. Might be worth a try if you haven't gone that route. I prefer BRP because it isn't a drug. I get nothing for suggesting these products. Just always interested in what works.
Tincture of opium is hard to get in some neighborhoods, but black raspberry powder and elderberry capsules should be readily available online or at your local "health-food" store. I discussed black raspberry powder in my last newsletter, so I won't say anything about it here. WebMD has this to say about elderberries: "The cooked elderberry fruit seems to be safe, but raw and unripe fruit might cause nausea, vomiting, or severe diarrhea." The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has this to say about the science and elderberries:
- Although some small studies show that elderberry may relieve flu symptoms, the evidence is not strong enough to support this use of the berry.
- A few studies have suggested that a product containing elder flower and other herbs can help treat sinus infections when used with antibiotics, but further research is needed to confirm any benefit.
- No reliable information is available on the effectiveness of elderberry and elder flower for other uses.
Why bother to wait for more studies, however, when you can collect as many favorable anecdotes as you like on the WWW? What really matters is how you feel, right? Maybe your misbelief relieves enough stress to relieve your diarrhea, right?
Health News Sources I Don't Trust
Joe Mercola, Mike Adams, Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, Gary Null, Dr. Oz, and a chiropractor who calls himself Dr. Axe. Here is one bit of ignorance Axe is spreading to his minions about neuroendocrine tumors (NETs): "The type of cancer [Steve] Jobs had was of the hormone producing cells of the pancreas, which has a life expectancy of 3 to 6 months, on average. Steve lived for twenty years with this cancer! It seems that he did not have chemotherapy or radiation treatment at all." Jobs did have malignant insulinoma, a type of pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, but there is no meaningful statistic that could tell anyone with this type of cancer what his life expectancy is. There are some meaningful statistics regarding 5-year survival rates of pancreatic cancer, however. The five-year survival rate for pancreatic exocrine cancer is about zero; the five-year survival rate for pancreatic endocrine cancer is 46%. Jobs lived for eight years after diagnosis, and he most likely had his disease for several years before he started having symptoms. The fact that most NETs are slow-growing is both a blessing and a curse. Some people live with pNETs for decades, but because the tumors are slow-growing, symptoms that might lead one to see a physician don't occur until the cancer has metastasized.
Axe also claims, without providing any scientific evidence, that the two major causes of cancer are toxic overload syndrome and nutritional deficiencies. "Toxic overload syndrome" is not a medical term and you will search in vain in the medical literature for such a syndrome. Anyway, Axe thinks the organs that filter our blood and urine--the kidneys, liver, and colon--get overloaded with toxins and need to be flushed out periodically. The need for detoxification is a classic notion among quacks. The evidence for specific nutritional deficiencies being a major cause of any particular kind of cancer doesn't exist. We know you can reduce your risk of cancer by not smoking, not being obese, eating wisely, and exercising regularly. Living as long as Steve Jobs did with pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer is something many people do and have done; length of survival has more to do with the nature of the disease than with the detox and dietary habits of the patients.
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