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Losing the Cancer War

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The American Cancer Society

  • Attacks Alternative Medicine Therapies
  • “There go our profits”

For years the American Cancer Society demonstrated its allegiance to the multibillion-dollar cancer drug industry by aggressively attacking potential competitors through its "Committee on Unproven Methods of Cancer Management," created to "review" unorthodox or alternative therapies. This committee, staffed by "volunteer health care professionals," invariably promoted mainstream, expensive, and arguably toxic drugs patented by major pharmaceutical companies, and opposed alternative or "unproven" therapies, which are generally cheap, non-patentable, and minimally toxic. As with Senator Joseph McCarthy's blacklist of suspected communists, once a clinician or oncologist was associated with "unproven methods," harassment and blackballing often followed, and funding would dry up. This witch hunt against alternative practitioners was in striking contrast to the Society's uncritical endorsement of conventional toxic chemotherapy, despite increasing concern that chemotherapy may not significantly improve survival rates for most cancers. After an extensive review of clinical oncology studies, for example, Dr. Ulrich Abel of the Institute of Epidemiology and Biometry at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, concluded that for most patients chemotherapy functions as little more than a placebo, with an attendant decline in quality of life from the toxic treatment.

Over the past twenty years cancer patients have become increasingly frustrated—but also increasingly organized. Disillusioned with the cancer establishment's definition of "progress" and "prevention" and fed up with the toxic side effects of conventional treatments, grassroots cancer activists convinced forty members of Congress to investigate the efficacy of alternative therapies. Congress enlisted the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), a congressional think tank, to do the job. In 1990, OTA identified some 200 promising studies on alternative treatments, and concluded that NCI had "a mandated responsibility to pursue this information and facilitate examination of widely used 'unconventional cancer treatments' for therapeutic potential."

Yet mainstream cancer organization have not followed the OTA's recommendations. For example, in the January 1991 issue of its Cancer Journal for Clinicians, the American Cancer Society dismissed the Hoxsey therapy, a nontoxic combination of herb extracts developed in the 1940s by populist Harry Hoxsey, as a "worthless tonic for cancer." However, a detailed critique of Hoxsey's treatment by Dr. Patricia Spain Ward, a leading contributor to the OTA report, concluded just the opposite: "More recent literature leaves no doubt that Hoxsey's formula does indeed contain many plant substances of marked therapeutic activity." In his recently published book, When Healing Becomes a Crime, Kenny Ausubel chronicles the cancer establishment's unbridled—and scientifically unsubstantiated—attacks against the Hoxsey treatment and other promising new therapies, without even bothering to investigate their effectiveness.

This is not the first time that American Cancer Society claims of quackery have been called into question or discredited. A growing number of other innovative therapies originally attacked by the American Cancer Society are gaining acceptance. These include hyperthemia, Tumor Necrosis Factor, (originally called Coleys' Toxin), hydrazine sulfate, and Burzynski's antineoplastons. Well over 100 promising alternative nonpatented and nontoxic therapies have already been identified. Clearly, such treatments merit clinical testing and evaluation, with ACS and NCI funds, using similar statistical techniques and criteria as those established for conventional chemotherapy.

Bypassing the blithely unresponsive NCI and ACS, the National Institutes of Health created its own agency, the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), in 1992 to study unconventional approaches to treatment. In 1998, eight years after the OTA's report, Congress upgraded the OAM to an independent institute, The National Center for Complementary Alternative Medicine. Soon thereafter, the American Cancer Society begrudgingly abandoned its decades-long crusade against "quackery."

Excerpted from “The High Stakes of Cancer Prevention” by Samuel Epstein and Liza Gross, Tikkun Magazine, Nov/Dec 2000

Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
Cancer Prevention Coalition
University of Illinois at Chicago
School of Public Health
2121 W. Taylor St., MC 922
Chicago, IL 60612

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