Lies, Damn Lies and Articles About Chemotherapy Research

I’ve spent a lot of time trawling the internet for useful, accurate information. There’s a lot of rubbish out there.

One of the frustrating things is the propensity for a journalist to put their own interpretation on a piece of research, report something that either ‘cures’ or ’causes’ cancer (when, in fact, that’s not what the research says at all), and for that journalist’s inaccurate summary to then get plastered all over the internet.

This is particularly the case when it comes to chemotherapy.

Most recently, this story did the rounds in various forms:

If you don’t have time to read the article, here’s the opening paragraph:

“A team of researchers looking into why cancer cells are so resilient accidentally stumbled upon a far more important discovery. While conducting their research, the team discovered that chemotherapy actually heavily damages healthy cells and subsequently triggers them to release a protein that sustains and fuels tumor growth. Beyond that, it even makes the tumor highly resistant to future treatment.”

WHAT!? Terrifying! My chemotherapy might be causing a more aggressive cancer? AARGGH!!! 

If you were (like so many people) inclined to believe everything you read then this might send you into a panic. My serious concern with this type of reporting is that it might cause people to end their treatment early, or to not start it at all. For some types of cancers this can have serious, life shortening consequences.

In particular, note the use of the word ‘accidental’ and an image of a seriously ill child. Then check out the concluding paragraph:

“This accidental finding reached by scientists further shows the lack of real science behind many ‘old paradigm’ treatments, despite what many health officials would like you to believe. The truth of the matter is that natural alternatives do not even receive nearly as much funding as pharmaceutical drugs and medical interventions because there’s simply no room for profit. If everyone was using turmeric and vitamin D for cancer (better yet cancer prevention), major drug companies would lose out.”

So all I need is turmeric and vitamin D (and to not have done whatever I’ve done to cause my own cancer!) and all that mainstream medical treatment in unnecessary? Hmmm.  Keep this paragraph in mind as you join me on a search for the truth about the research that this highly misleading article pretends to be reporting.

First, here’s another version of the story:

Here’s the opening paragraph if you don’t have time to read the article:

“Despite its life-saving qualities, chemotherapy has long had a nasty reputation, known as a necessary poison for people suffering from cancer. But in some cases, chemotherapy is so damaging that it may even backfire and make the cancer worse, a new study has found.”

So, the first thing we notice is that chemotherapy is still credited with being ‘life saving’ and the article qualifies the ‘backfiring’ effect to only occurring in ‘some cases’. Gone is the ‘accidental’ reference but I have no idea why they chose an illustration of someone receiving a vaccination to illustrate the story. This article is an improvement on the SHOCK HORROR of the first, but it would still be enough to frighten you if you were undergoing or considering chemotherapy.

The complication with these stories is that they feed into the common belief about treatments and resistance. We all know that antibiotics can breed superbugs from anything that survives treatment and the staph infections are prevalent in hospitals BECAUSE of disinfectant and not in spite of it. It’s not too difficult to believe that anything surviving chemotherapy would be a more aggressive form of cancer. It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Stay with me for a bit longer. Here’s another article on exactly the same piece of research”

This is an article about why it’s important to understand exactly what this research set out to do, and what the results mean. The anti-chemotherapy camp keep ignoring one very significant fact; more people are alive today because of chemotherapy. When I was young, hearing that a woman had breast cancer was a reason to start thinking about what you’d be doing to support her family after the funeral. It’s not turmeric and garlic that have contributed to the impressive increases in survival rates. It’s science and the application of that science to medicine.

Once again, the opening paragraphs:

“We spotted some worrying headlines today claiming that chemotherapy can ‘backfire’ and ‘encourage cancer’, making it “tougher to tackle”. We want to make it clear that cancer patients don’t need to be distressed by these unnecessarily alarming headlines, or consider stopping their treatment. In fact, the research from US scientists that sparked the coverage categorically does not show chemotherapy makes cancer harder to beat. Instead, the work gives scientists a vital insight into one way that the body can develop resistance to chemotherapy, and it could help explain why treatment sometimes stops working. But it doesn’t tell us anything new about current chemotherapy treatments – we already know that some cancers respond to chemo while other don’t, or start growing again after treatment.”

This article goes on to explain that the research is good news for cancer patients because it provides an insight into why some treatments that are initially effective stop working, and provides an opportunity to improve chemotherapy.

Here’s another report on the same piece of research, responding to the ‘backfiring’ claims:

This article is from a science site and you immediately notice the difference in the style and the content;

“Sep. 18, 2013 — Overactivity of a protein that normally cues cells to divide sabotages the body’s natural cellular recycling process, leading to heightened cancer growth and chemotherapy resistance, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers have found.”

and then the closing paragraph;

“These new findings are important for two reasons: First, they provide insight into how to extend EGFR-targeted therapy to a much larger group of lung cancer patients, including those whose tumors do not have mutations. Second, they provide a totally new approach to overcoming resistance to EGFR-targeted therapy.”

WAIT! It’s about how we can provide BETTER treatment to cancer patients? It’s relevant to lung cancer? Why didn’t the other articles say that?

Now let’s have a look at one last article, this time from a medical site:

And notice the difference in the opening paragraph:

“A new study from the US finds that in the process of targeting and killing off cancer cells, chemotherapy may also spur healthy cells in the neighbourhood to release a compound that stimulates cancer growth, eventually leading to treatment resistance. They hope their finding will lead to better therapies for cancer and buy precious time for patients with advanced cancer.”

Now let’s return to that concluding paragraph from the first article”

“This accidental finding reached by scientists further shows the lack of real science behind many ‘old paradigm’ treatments, despite what many health officials would like you to believe. The truth of the matter is that natural alternatives do not even receive nearly as much funding as pharmaceutical drugs and medical interventions because there’s simply no room for profit. If everyone was using turmeric and vitamin D for cancer (better yet cancer prevention), major drug companies would lose out.”

Can you see why I’m angry?

This type of reporting is irresponsible and dangerous. Just to wrap things up, here’s a link to the actual research:

Perhaps the difficulty in all of this is that most people have trouble understanding academic jargon. There’s also the problem that you’re dealing with science, chemistry, medicine and a whole lot of language that isn’t in common use. Even so, I have no trouble understanding the gist this sentence:

“These results delineate a mechanism by which genotoxic therapies given in a cyclical manner can enhance subsequent treatment resistance through cell nonautonomous effects that are contributed by the tumor microenvironment.”

Simply put, the results of the research will help doctors to design new chemotherapy that helps to overcome the problem of cells developing resistance to treatment.

Here’s my ultimate summary of the whole issue. Researchers wanted to have a look at why some people develop a resistance to chemotherapy over time in order to determine if there was some way to overcome that, or to minimise the problem. In the course of that research they did actually identify a mechanism by which that resistance occurs in lung cancer. As a consequence, doctors faced with patients developing resistance now have some new ways to treat it and researchers with an interest in this area now have more information and more promising avenues for further research.

Or you could try just taking turmeric.

Because a woman reported last week that it cured her.

So hey, forget science and double blind trials and massively improved survival rates thanks to mainstream medicine, and just put some spice in your dinner.

I don’t pretend chemotherapy is perfect. If it was then we’d have a 100% cure rate with no side effects. What I do know it that it’s the current best available treatment for a whole range of cancers, including mine, and that it provides palliative care for a whole range of others.

Happy to add the turmeric as well on the basis that it won’t hurt me, and it may help, but to abandon a known, proven treatment on the basis of a misreported piece of research? Nope. Not happening.

I suppose the point of this post is to create a record of how just one piece of research can lead to a mountain of misinformation and how dangerous it can be to believe this stuff. If you google ‘chemotherapy backfires’ you’ll find hundreds of articles, all with their own spin and few actually reporting what the research was about or what they discovered.

The real pity is that a story that should have given hope to a lot of people was manipulated to terrify them.


One thought on “Lies, Damn Lies and Articles About Chemotherapy Research

  1. Amen!! Great gophering of the scary reporting out there. I’m with you. Brutal as it is, without chemotherapy I would have died 33 years ago, and then again now with breast cancer, there’s no way I’m leaving it all to turmeric! I do believe those alternative therapies have a role, but not at the expense of turning one’s back on conventional, scientifically -sound therapies. I’m a scientist who has worked for many years in the cancer field, so I understand the literature, but it is a mine-field out there for the general public who are at the mercy of these reporters who give a very one-sided, often-misguided view.

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