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False despair.

False Despair

A man called me the other day, a professor at a local college. His friend, a 47-year-old woman he wanted to marry, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and he desperately wanted my advice on alternatives. When he told me her name, tears welled up in my eyes. By coincidence she turned out to be my daughter's favorite teacher at college.

I explained my agreement with People Against Cancer, of Otho, Iowa, by which I consult on the telephone with sustaining members of their non-profit organization. Such members also receive a copy of my book The Cancer Industry and The Cancer Chronicles newsletter, and are therefore up to speed by the time I talk to them. This man joined, and we had a long talk.

Orthodox medicine, we both agreed, had little to offer his loved one. Five-year survival is a few percentage points for all stages of adenocarcinoma of the exocrine pancreas. For her stage IV cancer, it is close to zero, and such patients go quickly. Her doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering were offering her a 5-FU-like drug, but with little enthusiasm.

I then told him about three alternative therapies: (1) antineoplastons, peptides found in blood and urine that Stanislaw Burzynski, M.D., Ph.D., discovered and has used for over a decade as a cancer treatment. These are now being investigated in Japan, China, Italy, Poland, and the United States, including a group at the U.S. Defense Department. But Burzynski has been dogged by opposition all along the way; (2) IAT of Dr. Lawrence Burton. When he was a researcher at St. Vincent's Hospital (N.Y.), Burton came up with a novel way of destroying tumors in mice with blood serum fractions. Opposition by the Food and Drug Administration forced him to move to the Bahamas.

What evidence is there that these treatments really work, the man asked. I pointed to Burton and Burzynski's many published papers. I also gave him names and phone numbers of pancreatic cancer patients who had been treated with these therapies and survived. Some were free of their disease for more than five years.

The man called some of these people and was impressed. I cautioned that such cases were rare, but some "miracles" did exist. He excitedly said he would talk to his friend and get back to me. The next day he phoned. I could hear defeat in his voice. His friend had decided not to try any of these treatments. Instead, she would "follow her orthodox doctors. She wants to finish some school work," he added, sheepishly. "In about a month, she may take the chemotherapy."

I slept poorly that night. It wasn't just a feeling of personal failure but the disturbing thought that this intelligent woman was in effect signing her own death warrant. Defenders of unconventional therapies are often accused of spreading "false hope." A medical school professor I debated on TV this summer castigated me with this charge. "My job," he said, in all earnestness, "is to convince such people they're going to die."

False hope! It's drummed into our ears. Hope itself, however, cannot be "true" or "false." Such cut-and-dried categories apply to facts, not dreams. Hope, as Emily Dickinson put it, is that "thing with wings." Of course, hope can be more or less reasonable. But doctors at orthodox cancer centers don't mind raising unreasonable hopes by administering drugs they know have almost zero chance of effecting a cure. They talk about "response rates," without explaining that these do not translate into long-term survival. Chemotherapy is sometimes administered cynically, to keep the patient "correctly oriented" and away from non-toxic or nutritional treatments. Yet, the same doctors who prescribe such toxic drugs are the first to scorn the innovative methods of Burton, Burzynski, and the others they call "quacks."

Alternative therapies offer hope when orthodox measures fail. Is such hope valuable? Certainly, if the treatments do no harm and raise the spirits, instilling an optimistic or fighting attitude. Most of us have experienced the power of the mind in disease. Scientific studies confirm that cancer patients live longer with an upbeat attitude. Doctors may mock this as a "mere placebo" when it's used by alternative practitioners, but the placebo has been the secret weapon of all medicine since the days of Hippocrates.

In the case of Burton, Burzynski, et al., there are also scientific studies, clinical reports, scientific credentials, and the positive experiences of thousands of patients. Because of this, an oncologist who tells a patient to "go home and make your will" is not countering false hope but spreading "false despair." Afraid of straying beyond the mental barbed wire of established opinion, such doctors do a good job of conveying numbing fear to their patients.

Who then can blame this fine and intelligent woman for turning her face to the wall and yielding to hopelessness - while hope itself flutters just beyond her reach?
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Title Annotation:alternative cancer therapies vs. chemotherapy
Author:Moss, Ralph W.
Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:column
Date:Sep 22, 1990
Words:821
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