As we walked back towards the waiting room following the scan that would serve as the blueprint that we would use to plan Darren’s radiation for his cancer, he asked a question that stopped me in my tracks. “If I decide to cancel my radiation appointments, can I just call you?” To determine whether this was just a simple question of curiosity in the case of an emergency or something more, I asked him to clarify why he would consider canceling. Standing in the hallway between two clinic rooms, he stated that in the time between our first meeting and today’s visit, he had been doing some online “research” and thought he would consider doing something “more natural” to keep his cancer at bay.
Although time was tight that morning with a packed clinic schedule, I knew from experience that this was a discussion that would require more attention and I asked him to join me in one of the empty clinic rooms. I asked a few questions to better understand his decision, listened to his concerns, and discussed the risks and benefits of treatment, including declining treatment altogether, which we know is associated with an increased risk of death. Over the next 2 weeks, multiple doctors from different specialties could not get Darren to reconsider his decision to forego proven treatment. I personally discussed this with him on the day he brought up the idea of “natural therapies” as well as over the phone on two separate occasions. Despite our best efforts, Darren was convinced that “natural was better” and he canceled all his future treatments. This was not my first encounter with this figure of speech and I’m afraid it won’t be my last. Unfortunately, after I called to check in on him, I learned that Darren had died just 2 months after our initial conversation.
Today, many online cancer treatments are marketed as being natural—an appealing promise to cure without any side-effects. Natural medicines are often described as being inherently healthy and unquestionably good. The natural treatment is often placed at odds with “Western” or “Conventional” medicine, which are associated with adjectives like toxic or poisonous and nouns like chemical or synthetic. These false dichotomies between natural and unnatural could not be further from the truth.
Natural is not always better
Many natural substances that serve valuable purposes in low doses can be deadly in high doses. Potassium, a natural component of vegetables, meat and fruits, plays a vital biological role in humans. It influences the function of nerves, muscles, blood vessels, hormones, and organs like the heart, kidneys and bowels. However, potassium, when combined with another naturally occurring substance, chloride, is a part of the drug cocktail used for executions by lethal injection. It causes the heart stop. The dose generally determines the effect and often makes the poison. It’s through rigorous scientific study, which I have previously written about, that we know the exact doses (natural or otherwise) that may make a something beneficial or toxic.
There are many examples of substances that are promoted as natural cures for cancer. Recently, a man developed cyanide poisoning because he believed that amygdalin (laetrile or Vitamin B17), a commonly marketed natural substance contained in apricot kernel extract, would keep his cancer from returning. This is not a surprising occurrence as it is well known that laetrile, once in the body, is converted to cyanide. Natural, depending on the situation, is not always better.
Natural substances make up the basis for many treatments
One of the more prominent myths about natural therapies is that these cannot be patented and that this results in a global conspiracy to suppress their use. This is false. Many natural therapies have and continue to be patented for use, once proven effective. Aspirin is a derivative from willow tree leaves and is believed to have been in use for its medicinal benefits for over 2000 years. It was studied by chemists and sold widely by the end of the 19th century. This derivative of a natural substance has demonstrated safety and effectiveness for many indications, including use immediately after a heart attack to improve survival, and is now considered an essential medication by the World Health Organization. There is a reason that aspirin, an extremely inexpensive substance, is now a medicine and not considered a natural alternative medicine. It’s not because it stopped being a derivative of a natural substance along the way. It’s because it’s been proven to work.
Some of our best cancer therapies also come from natural substances. For example, following surgery for breast cancer, patients will often receive chemotherapies including anthracyclines and taxanes, created from soil bacteria and the pacific yew tree. Even radiation, my specialty in-training area, could be said to be derived from natural sources. Marie Curie, one of the most famous scientists in history, isolated naturally occurring radioactive isotopes from the earth and later, oversaw the treatment of cancers.
The side-effects of these cancer therapies can be unpleasant. However, the good news is that despite these adverse symptoms, which can often be managed effectively by a trained professional, cancer can be cured. This is because the treatments have been thoroughly studied. Although alternative “natural” medicines are marketed to be an equally effective and better tolerated treatment than conventional medicine, there is no research to support this claim. The distinction between alternative medicine and conventional medicine is not actually a distinction between natural and unnatural as described in online marketing tricks, but rather a distinction between that which is unproven to work and what has been proven to work. Don’t fall for the “natural” lie.