NaturalNonsense:NaturalNews hyperbole on cancer screening

Historically I have sort of ignored the site NaturalNews because it is so blatantly wrong. It reads exactly like conspiracy sites like Prison Planet and Info Wars (both by Alex Jones). This turns out to make sense as appears that they share content between each other. Amazingly, NaturalNews is actually a popular site*. So perhaps it is time to start taking a look at these fun articles from the “Health Ranger” and his cohorts.


The first article to look at is is called “National Cancer Institute report admits millions have been falsely treated for ‘cancer’”. In this particular case there was no need to do external research to debunk various claims. Rather I wanted to look at how the writer at NaturalNews manages to twist the findings of various legitimate studies to make their point. Right in the title you can see the similarities the content at Mercola.com. They source nationally recognized institutions when it suits their purpose, but otherwise treat them as if they are part of the grand conspiracy to destroy our health. The study being referenced is “Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment in Cancer: An Opportunity for Improvement” (Esserman 2013) published in August of 2013 in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in their “Viewpoints” section. (NOTE: The article is behind a paywall so only the first page is available to me). The primary conclusion of the study seems to be that early screening efforts should be focused on identifying those cancers which have high morbidity and mortality, such as colon and cervical cancers. Some other forms of cancers (such as breast, prostate and lung) can sometimes be detected when they are “clinically insignificant” and might not ever be malignant. So the report advises being careful about what is labelled “cancer” to separate the tumors and lesions that have a higher chance of becoming fatal. This way we can avoid as much as possible preemptively doing invasive surgeries or treatments that are actually unnecessary.

For example, abnormal cells in milk ducts in the breast, known as Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) is sometimes considered the “earliest form of breast cancer”, even though they are actually not malignant and won’t necessarily metastasize. However surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy) is sometimes performed at this point as a precaution. The panel is essentially suggesting that more research be done to determine when DCIS is likely to progress/mutate into full blown breast cancer. Seems reasonable.

But is that how the author of the NaturalNews article took things? Of course not. Instead they say:

These are shocking admissions, considering that NCI is a government-funded agency that tends to favor the conventional cancer diagnosis and treatment model, even when it is shown to be a failure. But even worse is the inference that untold millions of healthy people have been treated with poison and radiation for conditions they never even had, which likely caused many of them to develop real cancer and even die as a result.

“Shocking admissions” is the type of language I’ve come to expect from those who have absolutely no respect for science. What for them is a “shocking admission” is in real life simply the constant application of research and analysis to make medicine better. It’s tragic that people have gone through pain, or died, from what turn out to be unnecessary treatments. But this is why researchers and medical authorities are constantly trying to improve it. The surgeries weren’t because doctors thought it would be a fun thing to do. They genuinely wanted to increase the life expectancy of their patients.

“Conventional” cancer treatment actually a “leading cause” of cancer?

You read that sub-title right.
The NN article continues on, making a massive generalization based on a single study. They quote someone from GreenMedInfo.com, itself a poor choice for medical information, as saying it is “well-known that the minority subpopulation of stem cells within these tumors will be enriched and therefore made more malignant through conventional treatment”. As support, they cite research (Lagadec 2012) [The link includes one to the full study, this is sort of a summary] finding that breast cancer cells could be made more malignant from radiotherapy. This cannot be equated with a general indictment of “conventional” treatment. Basically during gaps in the treatment (where, say 50% of the cells are killed), additional cells may be generated in some instances. The researchers note that they cannot predict ahead of time which people this will happen in.

But the senior researcher on the study that NaturalNews itself is citing states:

Patients come to me scared by the idea that radiation generates these cells, but it truly is the safest and most effective therapy there is.

Certainly unproven “alternative” treatments aren’t going to be as effective.

In fact, if you dive into the study, the authors believe that using the knowledge gained about the ability of breast cancer stem cells to regenerate in response to stress (such as radiotherapy) will actually lead to more effective radiation therapy, not the elimination of it. Specifically [emphasis mine],

Controlling the radio resistance of [Breast Cancer Stem Cells] and the generation of new [induced Breast Cancer Stem Cells] during radiation treatment may ultimately improve curability and may allow for de-escalation of the total radiation doses currently given to breast cancer patients thereby reducing acute and long-term adverse effects.

So to repeat, science in action. “The cancer establishment”, rather than just wanting to continue blindly applying treatment modalities, is constantly looking at it and detecting trends in an effort to make it more effective. Remind me again what the problem is?

Cancer is our body’s attempt to survive?

I don’t even know what to say about the last paragraph. It again quotes from GreenMedInfo:

“Our entire world view of cancer needs to shift from an enemy that ‘attacks’ us and that we must wage war against, to something our body does, presumably to survive an increasingly inhospitable, nutrient-deprived, carcinogen- and radiation-saturated environment,” adds Ji.

What does that even mean (Brian Dunning put it best in one Skeptoid, this is basically “word soup”)? Scientists are fully aware that many causes are obviously environmental (radiation-induced, smoking, asbestos, etc, etc). Is Ji actually suggesting that because we can get cancer from the environment, that we should just go with it and let it run it’s course like it’s nothing more than a simple allergic reaction? Please tell me I am misunderstanding the statement, because that’s… I don’t even know. People die from cancer every day. They die. They don’t create a nice symbiotic relationship with their tumor. If they are lucky, the cancer will go into remission. Or it won’t, and they will get treatment that removes it and they live on the have a happy life. Sometimes they aren’t so lucky. But to suggest that cancer is our friend or at least not “the enemy” is patently absurd. Researchers and oncologists are fighting a constant battle to save and enrich lives.

Conclusion

So basically we have a couple of reasonable studies that, in one case, advise caution in the way we handle early screenings to prevent over treatment. It additionally advises studying the behavior of these abnormalities so they can be better understood. In the second study, they found that in some patients, breast cancer cells that have been irradiated are capable of regenerating even faster during the treatment gaps. The study authors still note that radiation therapy remains the most safe and effective treatment. They also believe that with this knowledge we can produce more effective treatments that actually require less radiation! Science in action. But the response of NaturalNews and GreenMedInfo is to essentially spin it as “radiation therapy is actually a leading cause of cancer” (which is certainly not a conclusion of the cited study) and that the National Cancer Institute and medical establishment are simply continuing to support “failed” treatments. You be the judge.

*For reference, Alexa lists it at #600 in the US, right next to mercola.com at #593. This is versus skeptoid.com around #31,000 and Science Based Medicine at #16,000. So it’s a whole order of magnitude more popular than sites that genuinely strive to present accurate information, rather than conspiracy theories.

References
Esserman LJ, Thompson IM, Jr, Reid B. Overdiagnosis and Overtreatment in Cancer: An Opportunity for Improvement. JAMA.2013;310(8):797-798. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.108415.
Lagadec, C, Vlashi, E, Della Donna, L, Dekmezian, C, Pajonk, F. Radiation-induced reprogramming of breast cancer cells. Stem Cells. 2012;30:833-844.

About Josh DeWald

I am a software engineer, husband and parent of two. I have been involved in the Skeptical movement for a few years now, especially since having children and so needing to fight pseudoscience related to parenting (vaccines, homeopathy, etc). I've been fortunate to attend TAM twice with my wife (who is also of a Skeptical bent). I also have a blog known as "What Does the Science Say?" (whatdoesthesciencesay.wordpress.com), where I have an odd habit of writing a lot about aspartame.
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7 Responses to NaturalNonsense:NaturalNews hyperbole on cancer screening

  1. What dangerous nonsense. I try not to judge people simply by the sources they use, but I have a hard time not thinking anyone who cites Natural News for anything other than comedic purposes is an idiot.

  2. christian says:

    This is what the internet does. No matter how stupid someone’s views, they will find someone else willing to blog the same opinion, and thus they will feel that their views are proven. That someone else could be equally wrong, does not occur to them.

  3. Bob Kauten says:

    Tempting as it is, I don’t click on links to NaturalNews.com. The more clicks (attention) they record, the higher prices their advertisers pay.
    I used to attempt reasoning with the readers of NaturalNews.com. Waste of time. They’re not salvageable.
    Same with the followers of Alex Jones.

  4. Noah Dillon says:

    Hey guys, here’s an image of someone who tried to treat their skin cancer with natural remedies instead of seeing a doctor. It’s very graphic, NSFW, and viewer discretion is totally, strongly advised: https://instagram.com/p/76nGJ8CVmI/
    You’ll note in the description that the poster, a pathologist, describes the particular form of cancer as basal cell carcinoma, which is rarely threatening if treated. Instead, a victim of the natural fallacy, he’s now missing a lot of flesh and skin. Doctors are trained to help people with science-based medicine. Quacks learn how to sell nonsense that can be really dangerous. I know which one I’d go to if I had a carcinoma.

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