The New York Times (Well blog), February 25, 2011
This week, “Dateline” on NBC devoted an entire hour on Sunday evening to allow the actress Suzanne Somers to express her rather unconventional beliefs about cancer.
It is not the first time a major media outlet has given air time to Ms. Somers, whose journey into the medical realm has been featured on a variety of news programs, talk shows and entertainment channels. A few years ago, Oprah Winfrey invited Ms. Somers on her show to share the secrets behind her youthful appearance — a complex regimen of unregulated hormone creams and some 60 vitamins and supplements.
But is it entirely outrageous that respected media organizations continue to give the “Three’s Company” sitcom star a platform to dispense medical advice? Not really, in a world in which celebrities have become among the most recognizable spokespeople — and sometimes experts — about various diseases.
And Ms. Somers is just the latest in a long line of critics, celebrity and otherwise, who have challenged mainstream cancer therapy. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, an insurance salesman named Harry Hoxsey recommended a botanical treatment made from roots and bark. A well-known physician, Dr. Andrew Ivy, promoted krebiozen, which was derived from the serum of horses. Thousands of cancer patients spent substantial money on these nostrums, both of which were worthless. At the time, Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of The Journal of the American Medical Association, called the people who promoted them “cancer quacks” and labeled them “vicious” and “unprincipled.”
That these alternatives to traditional cancer treatments gained popularity after World War II is not surprising. In that era, cancer surgeons and radiation therapists became extremely aggressive in their efforts to remove or kill every last cancer cell. These treatments were extremely toxic, and most patients died anyway. Cancer patients were understandably searching for alternatives.
By the 1970s, celebrities were going public with their cancer stories, including the former actress and diplomat Shirley Temple Black and the first lady Betty Ford, both of whom were candid about their breast cancers. But it was the case of another celebrity with cancer, the actor Steve McQueen, that again focused attention on unorthodox therapy. In March 1980, The National Enquirer accurately reported that Mr. McQueen was undergoing treatment in Mexico for mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the lung, that his doctors had termed incurable.
Later that fall, one of Mr. McQueen’s Mexican doctors held a press conference in which he announced that the treatment, consisting of dozens of vitamins, minerals and pancreatic enzymes, a reputed anticancer substance from apricot pits known as laetrile and detoxifying coffee enemas, was curing Mr. McQueen. It was not true. Mr. McQueen died of his cancer the next month. Nevertheless, thousands of cancer patients retraced his path to Mexico in search of a fruitless cure.
Now comes Ms. Somers, who, after receiving surgery and radiation for her breast cancer in 2001, declined chemotherapy in favor of a drug made from mistletoe extract.
Ms. Somers has since written a book, “Knockout,” which relates her experiences with cancer and promotes several modern unorthodox physicians, including Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski and Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez. Dr. Burzynski, based in Houston, has treated more than 10,000 cancer patients with naturally occurring proteins that he calls antineoplastons. Dr. Gonzalez, who practices in New York City and has gained notoriety for his use of coffee enemas, uses a regimen similar to that given to Steve McQueen, although without the laetrile. The Food and Drug Administration has not approved either treatment, although the agency has given “orphan” drug status, a designation used to foster research of rare diseases, to antineoplastons for the treatment of certain brain tumors. And the National Institutes of Health provided a $1.4 million grant to study Dr. Gonzalez’s cancer protocol.
The most compelling thing about Dr. Burzynski and Dr. Gonzalez are the patients they label as “cured.” When I interviewed Dr. Gonzalez for a book on famous patients, I met several who had been told by mainstream oncologists that they had incurable cancer but who were very much alive five, 10 or even 20 years later.
Yet it is hard to know what to make of these anecdotes, however powerful they are. Medicine relies on formal scientific studies, and neither antineoplastons nor Dr. Gonzalez’s regimen has been proved to be of value. Indeed, a recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Oncology showed that pancreatic cancer patients on average survived nearly 10 months longer with standard chemotherapy as opposed to what Dr. Gonzalez prescribes.
It may be that patients who experience long-term survival after unorthodox treatment were given faulty diagnoses or had cancers that regressed by themselves, a known phenomenon. Or it may be that the type of patient who has the time and money to pursue these alternative treatments is a healthier patient to start with. It is impossible to be sure.
So why does Ms. Somers promote these unproven therapies? She said she believes that oncologists do not inform end-stage cancer patients about nontraditional options, and that such people deserve to know.
Here Ms. Somers may have a point. Although oncologists are surely under no obligation to promote therapies they believe are useless or harmful, patients — especially those who want to explore every possible avenue — have the right to know that there are unorthodox cancer therapies that some people believe are helpful.
But not without several caveats, and that is where Ms. Somers, and many of those in the media who discuss her books and views, have failed. Ms. Somers says she is promoting hope, but false hope benefits no one.
Many people with end-stage cancer are, understandably, desperate, and thus potentially vulnerable to a sales pitch — even an expensive one. But here is a case when an informed patient may truly be a wiser patient. Perhaps if doctors were more willing to address the fact that these nontraditional treatments exist, and share what we do and don’t know about their effectiveness, an actress like Ms. Somers would have less influence, and science would speak louder than celebrity.