Pseudo-medicine and the “C” Word

Last weekend some members of Bristol Skeptics Society attended Question, Explore, Discover (QED), a skeptical conference in Manchester. The range of topics was mind-blowing and it was fun as well as informative, so maybe you should consider joining us for the next one, in October 2016.

One of the panel discussions I attended was entitled “Pseudo-medicine and the ‘C’ Word”. I was particularly interested in this as a couple of years ago two of us attended a free talk about alternative cancer treatments. Throughout that talk, the word cancer was systemically replaced by “recnac” in a futile attempt, I imagine, to bypass the Cancer Act. I remember well these two very bleak and frustrating hours, and how unable I felt to help and give information to the people who attended.

This prompted me to share with you a number of interesting points made by the panel, composed of Harriet Hall, Laura Thomason and a representative of Sense About Science.

What’s the harm?

When described by the words ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ it’s sometimes tricky for people to see any harm in alternative treatments. The panel mentioned as harmful :

  • Not taking the main medicine.
  • Treatments which can be harmful (apricot kernels in high doses, black salves – an internet search on these ones revealed horrific images).
  • Financial harm to individuals and families.
  • Loss of valuable time.
  • Patient blaming: the idea that if you want it enough you will get better, or that the illness is somehow your fault. (This is really perverse. I remember one of my acquaintances thinking she was “still” short sighted because she ‘wasn’t trying hard enough’ – if like me you have spent a lot of time trying to keep at bay the guilt women in the Catholic religion are born with, this is taking it to a whole new level).

And if you are left at a loss on how to help, here are some ideas given by the panel:

  • Myth busting blogs – you might think you’re one of many but it seems that those can really make a difference when patients do internet searches.
  • To this I’d add the anecdotal stories of people who have changed their minds, such as this family on vaccination.
  • Medical charities responding to alternative treatments such as Cancer UK. From what I understood, this was particularly efficient if targeted to one specific alternative treatment, and debunking it.
  • Transparency in the medical field.
  • Connecting directly with experts ( here is an example with Mumsnet).
  • Developing critical thinking in young children.
  • Freedom of choice BUT well-informed patients.
  • Complain to the ASA or trading standards when you see unfounded claims or a breach of the Cancer Act . It’s quick and easy. If you’re not sure how to do this, come and talk to us at the end of one of our meetings and we’ll help you.

I’ll leave you with the advice shared by the panel about dealing with a loved one who has cancer and might have gone with an alternative treatment you strongly object to and campaign against. Remember that most patients are very vulnerable and that they turn to these alternative treatments out of fear, and an attempt to reclaim control of their life in an easier, more ‘natural’ way. So stress that you think the idea they are pursuing is wrong, but that they are not a bad person; show them the evidence; and reassure them that you will still support them whatever their choice. If alternative treatments can waste valuable time, so can fruitless arguing.


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