Cancer is not a single disease, but different kinds of cancers can be grouped together because they behave in similar ways and afflict similar parts of the body. Although the very word “cancer” strikes fear into a lot of people and their families, medical treatments have advanced substantially over time. Doctors are now able to treat and even cure more forms of cancer than ever before and new research is being constantly carried out and published.
There has also been noticeable improvements in the ability of the health care system to detect cancer before it is too late. Catching cancer early is often a good thing compared with not detecting it until much later. This is because there is a less risk that the cancer has undergone radical changes or spread to other parts of the body. It is therefore agonizing and excruciatingly distressing when people who are diagnosed with early-stage cancer that are very treatable completely reject science-based treatments in favor of things that are ineffective or even dangerous. Recently, one such tragic case featuring a mother of four with stage
1 2 breast cancer appeared on the mass media tabloid scene.
Who is she and what happened?
Sarah Valentine is a 36 year-old makeup artist based in the United Kingdom who was diagnosed with stage
1 2 breast cancer in December of 2016. She discovered it in the mirror while dancing naked after having a shower. She has a boyfriend Richard (35) and is the mother of four children: Jesse (15), Poppy (5) Teddy (4) and Billy (1).
The cancer is located in her left breast with two tumors that measure 1 cm x 1 cm and 2.1 cm by 1.7 cm. She has a family history of cancer, but it is unclear if this also includes a family history of breast cancer. It is not mentioned specifically in any of the news reporting, other than that one of the people in her family had skin cancer. This story has been covered by the Daily Mail, Mirror and Metro.
What medical treatments are she turning down and why?
What science-based treatments was suggested by medical doctors? Valentine was offered two suggestions: (1) full mastectomy (surgical removal of the entire breast) or (2) lumpectomy (remove the tumors but try to save breast tissue) together with radiotherapy. They are both thoroughly mainstream treatments for breast cancer and are very effective for stage
1 2 breast cancer. According to cancer survival statistics listed by Cancer Research UK, 99% 90% of people with stage 12 breast cancer will survive at least 5 years after getting the diagnosis of breast cancer. The best approach is to get one of the science-based treatments and be lucky that it was caught early before it had metastasized.
However, this is not what Sarah Valentine decided to do. Instead she completely rejected the treatments offered by the National Health Service (NHS). Why? Because “if I had a mastectomy I would be dead within 10 years”, “[…] I’ve heard about others having mastectomies and still not surviving.” and “‘I’m 100% sure that my cancer is emotional”. In other words, she refuses surgery because she thinks surgery could have risks. But she does not seem to realize that leaving cancer untreated could be very dangerous if it grows and spreads to other part of the body. She has apparently “heard” of people having mastectomies and not surviving, but this is a weak anecdote that does not engage with the scientific research. It is like refusing to use a parachute when jumping out of an airplane because some people have died even though they had a parachute with them or refusing to use seat belts because some people die in car crashes even if they have seat belts. She also has an incredibly vulgar ignorance about cancer. Cancer is not “emotional”, it is cells that have rebelled against the body and started growing out of control. Cancer is not “emotional”, it is cell and molecular biology.
What quackery is she going to rely on instead?
Instead of using the highly effective methods of modern medicine for this type and stage of cancer, she will be using a number of different types of quackery. She will stop eating meat, dairy and grain and adopt a vegan diet. In particular, a diet that is geared towards pH quackery and “eating alkaline”. She will more or less only eat vegetables and seeds together with iodine supplements.
She will consume bitter almonds, presumably because she thinks that amygdalin (falsely called “vitamin B17” by quacks) is an effective treatment. In reality, scientific research has shown that this is not an effective treatment for cancer and can cause cyanide poisoning since it is metabolized into, among other things, hydrogen cyanide.
She also plans on eating turmeric powder, despite the fact that this is not bioavailable and therefore probably not an effective treatment against cancer. Valentine will also spend a lot of money on expensive vitamin C and sodium sultanate intravenous drips despite the fact that we know that vitamin C does not treat or cure cancer.
As if all this was not bizarrely irrational on its own, she has bought a worthless water filter for 300 GBP (~ 377 USD) that she put on her tap to “purify” water. In reality, the UK has one of the best quality drinking waters on earth. It is not something that needs to be “purified”. This filter probably does not do anything.
None of these treatments will work, but quacks will profit immensely from her suffering and the suffering of her husband and children. She estimates that she needs 30 000 GBP (~37 700 USD) for this and is currently trying to gather the money via crowdfunding. At the time of this writing, she gathered about 7 200 GBP out of 10 000 GBP goal.
Additional flaws in her narrative
What is especially infuriating is that she also deploys the classic quack gambit of “I’ve done a lot of scientific research into it”. No, she has not done any relevant scientific research into it. She has not performed any lab experiments or clinical trials about breast cancer or breast cancer treatments. She has probably not even read review papers in reputable science journals. Instead, her view of “scientific research” likely boils down to reading conspiracy websites or talking with other alternative medicine proponents on Facebook.
There is also a massive contradicting in her narrative. She insists that she has been using her pseudoscientific methods to avoid disease for a long time: sodium bicarbonate instead of deodorant, no hormones, ate healthy and breastfed her children. Clearly, these methods did not work for her and her belief in anecdotal supremacy should have led her to reject the entire paradigm of alternative medicine. Yet she did not. In fact, she appears astonished: “I couldn’t believe that I got ill.”
She does admit that she would consider changing her mind “if it doesn’t work”, but because she focuses so much on anecdotes and various anti-science claims and sources, it is possible that she will be entirely unable to shatter her own confirmation bias. It is entirely possible that Sarah Valentine will die from her disastrous treatment choice. Although it appears that her boyfriend supports her, Richard and her son Jesse should do all they can to get her into science-based treatment.
Her children should not have to lose their mother to treatable cancer at such a young age. Heartbreaking.
The intellectual responsibility of daily newspaper tabloids
This story has initially covered by the Daily Mail, The Mirror and Metro. These are a notorious low-quality newspaper tabloids that have promoted all sorts of nonsense from alternative medicine to anti-immigration extremism. They can often by fun and entertaining to read on public transportation to pass the time, but they are typically not newspapers you would want to read to get well-informed about world issues or science and medicine. Although it might be fun to report on some rumor about a celebrity or royalty, this kind of non-quality reporting is entirely unsuitable for reporting on medicine. Thus, these tabloids violate their deteriorating intellectual responsibility almost every week.
However, they must acknowledge that they do have an intellectual responsibility to not mislead people. Publishing this story might get many other people to buy into that crap instead of seeking real treatments for cancer. Many tabloids, if they even bother at all, settle for false balance whereby science-based information and batshit pseudoscience get equal time to present their case. This might seem fair, but it is a huge disservice to the reader because nonsense is being portrayed as being equally valid to solid science. The Daily Mail included a brief information box from Cancer Research UK and Metro briefly interviewed Martin Ledwick (lead cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK) who was critical of it. The Mirror did not even bother at all.
Imagine the good these tabloids could do if they presented robust scientific arguments and critically investigated alternative medicine fakery or organized a campaign to save people who have gotten sucked in by cancer quackery.
Note: surgical oncologist and breast cancer surgery specialist David Gorski has provided a correction to this post. It turns out that Valentine has stage 2 breast cancer and not stage 1 as this article previously claimed. I have made corrections for the cancer stage and for the 5 year survival figures that now reflect stage 2 breast cancer (note added 20170126 21:30 UTC +1).