Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Why Panorama's 'Can You Cure my Cancer?' is missing the point

Today's post is from our chairman, Robin Daly, in response to the recent Panorama documentary 'Can you Cure my Cancer?

After hitting us with the ‘hard fact’ opener that half of us are going to get cancer, last week’s Panorama: Can You Cure My Cancer? left viewers without a second to take a breath, let alone give a moment’s thought to questions such as ‘why?’ before sweeping us all away on a tidal wave of ‘good news’. We were alternately reassured that ‘this is an unprecedented time of progress in the history of cancer medicine and cancer research’, and thrilled by the promise of ‘personalised medicine’, the much heralded result of cutting edge gene research. ‘In both young and old patients, targeted treatments are producing spectacular results’. There was even tentative mention of the ‘c’ word - ‘cure’!

Not once on our wonder-filled roller coaster ride did we step back and pause to consider where we are really headed. As we saw people being treated for their second and third cancers with eye-wateringly expensive drugs, it became clear that, as good consumers, cancer spin has thus far succeeded in distracting us from the reality of the crisis we are in. If we keep going, it would seem likely that, not that far ahead, is the prospect of new ‘baseline’ where we blithely accept that we will all get cancer - of course - and the newspaper statistics and ‘good news’ stories will then be all about how many times.

Panorama presented us with a heady mix of enthusiastic scientists and sincere doctors beavering away excitedly inside some sort of invisible bubble, seemingly totally isolated from realities like the NHS cash crisis or the fact that half the population now has to go through the ‘living hell’ of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, or indeed the most important fact - that it’s getting worse all the time. Macmillan’s recent call to reality about the actual facts behind the ‘success stories’ of modern cancer treatment, about the day to day actuality of many ‘cancer survivors’’ lives that goes unheard above the blare of good news about improved survival statistics, had no place here amidst the optimism. The picture of a spiralling, out of control, untenable trajectory was entirely absent.

I don’t want to be churlish - on an individual level, who wouldn't jump at the chance of a ‘wonder drug’ to give their partner or child another year of life? It’s simply that, if we step back for just an instant, it’s blindingly obvious that there are no ‘big solutions’ to be found in anything presented by the programme. And right now what we need are big solutions. Expensive, frequently temporary solutions for a few are simply not going to become the answer to the cancer crisis we face. 

The progress of medicine is far, far slower than the progress of cancer - aka, according to one of the medics in the programme, the ‘evil genius’, -  which is actually gathering pace all the time: more people, younger people, an ever great toll on our families, our friends. We heard that 2.5 million people are now ‘living under the shadow of a cancer diagnosis’, the most in the history of the NHS.

The ‘successes’ are few, the costs are astronomical, and so even with the most optimistic take on the future, even if we got to the improbable stage of being able to treat most cancers, we could never hope to pay the bill. Most people would be on treatment all the time. In short, modern medicine is lost in a dream, a dream filled, as ever, with miracle drugs. Sadly, the only real winners in this dreamland are those who run the miracle pill factories.

As the programme progressed, we journeyed on with the patients on personalised treatment protocols, past the initial excitements of tumour shrinkage or stabilisation, and on to sharing with them the
darker realities of treatment resistance. Some months down the line, in many instances, the treatment fails, and cancer, the evil genius, resumes its relentless march, having worked out how to circumvent the singular challenge presented by the new ‘personalised treatment’. This was a sobering moment that clearly delineated the limitations of a ‘one trick pony’, however sophisticated and costly, against the ‘evil genius’ cancer that learns as it grows. As one contributor pointed out, cancer is like a moving target. These treatments are actually like a gun that is very carefully aimed at the target at the outset, but can only carry on shooting into thin air once the target has moved.

The presenter identified treatment resistance as now the ‘big hurdle’ obstructing progress. But wait a minute…haven’t we heard that before somewhere? Hasn't that been the ‘big hurdle’ throughout the long, gruesome and largely unsuccessful history of chemotherapy? All too many of us have witnessed the early ‘wins’ of chemotherapy - stabilisation, tumour shrinkage, even tumour eradication - quickly followed by the return of a far more virulent mutation, actually strengthened by treatment, and against which further attempts at treatment are futile.

Wasn't the big hope that these new personalised treatments were going to be so incredibly effective that problems like treatment resistance were to be consigned to history? When you start looking at treatment resistance as the main stumbling block to success, and you realise that it’s been that way
since long before the ‘war on cancer’ was even declared, you start to wonder just how much progress we are really looking at. In fact it makes you wonder if there isn't some basic ‘elephant in the room’ about treating cancer that is being stoically ignored.

So what could this ‘elephant’ be? The popular picture presented of cancer is as a bunch of rogue cells that require annihilation - an approach right in line with the ‘war on cancer’ metaphor, in which cancer is presented as an alien invader to be rooted out, whatever the cost to the quality of life. It’s all scarily reminiscent of the ‘war on terror’ or the ‘war on drugs’ and about as successful.

For many decades, some doctors have refused to look at cancer this way. Instead, they see it as a ‘systemic’ problem, one in which the normal systems of the body become degraded and eventually fail to maintain normal operation. This view naturally leads to an investigation of the factors leading to diagnosis, to efforts to correct them, and also to restore the body’s immune system. This, after all, is the system that failed in the first place, and that, in a healthy body, has all the capabilities necessary to control malignancy.

The immune system is the one resource we have against cancer that is as sophisticated and wily as the ‘evil genius’ itself. Far from being a ‘one trick pony’, the immune system is a ‘benign genius’ that is also learning all the time.

Furthermore, practitioners of Integrative Medicine - the name given to an approach to helping deal with cancer which takes in techniques from judicious use of chemotherapy through to meditation, and everything in between - whilst sure to be interested in good single target techniques, would never rely on them as a complete treatment.

Integrative treatment is essentially multi-faceted, targeting as many of cancer’s vulnerabilities as possible, whilst simultaneously supporting the recovery of the body’s innate defensive systems. In some of the world’s leading Integrative Medicine clinics, you could, for example, be given chemotherapy as a means to stabilise a critical situation, but it would delivered at a far lower, and therefore less damaging dosage, and in tandem with a raft of other non toxic therapies that enhance its effect, protect organs from damage and stimulate rapid recovery of the immune system. Most importantly, this would never be seen as more than a necessary prelude to being able to tackle the roots of the problem in the broadest way through corrective dietary and lifestyle measures.

This view of cancer has now been around for many decades, and the science behind it is becoming fairly mature. Furthermore, some world class scientists have recently added their support to the view that cancer is essentially a lifestyle problem, that we are increasingly doing it to ourselves through the way we now live. Oblivious to this crucial understanding, the full focus of the enormous research effort continues to be almost exclusively on drugs and miracle cures, with scant attention being given to prevention and virtually none at all to lifestyle approaches. 

Throughout the programme, cancer was referred to as a ‘disease’, a description that again justifies and supports the approach of eradication, rather like an infection. But leading theoretical physicist Professor Paul Davies tells us that cancer is a condition, not a disease. If he is right, then the ‘big answers’ we so desperately need lie not in miracle pills to overcome an alien invader, but in changes in the life choices we are making, such as our diet, stress levels, physical exercise and toxic environment.

After a short detour through the valley of the shadow of doubt about the true potential of the personalised treatments approach, the programme gave us all one final lift, by introducing us to some
immunotherapy. Although far from a new concept, this is indeed something that hasn't made much of an appearance in our hospitals - a treatment based on the recognition of the unique power of our own innate defences. The treatment’s shortcomings, described as ‘dangerous side-effects’, were associated with the ‘sledgehammer’ approach of using shockingly expensive synthetic chemicals, but nonetheless the result achieved was genuinely stunning, worthy of the title ‘cure’.

But the relentless search for miracle drugs sadly leaves no room whatsoever for the possibility of immunotherapy that is relatively cheap, natural, common sense, devoid of any side effects… and unprofitable; and furthermore, the opportunity presented by the direct connection that exists between more natural approaches to immunotherapy and wide scale prevention is entirely lost in a dystopian future of drug dependent ‘health’.

Modern testing techniques can accurately detect nutrient deficiencies to enable corrective measures to be taken via supplements, intravenous vitamins and highly nutritional resources such as juicing programmes, as means to support a weakened immune system. Furthermore, in parallel to drug based immunology, vaccines that are reliant on the patient’s own tumour tissue, or on dead bacteria, are making headway as effective immune stimulants.

At this point, the main hope that genetic research and personalised treatments seem to hold out to those with cancer is the potential for similar results to chemotherapy, but with far less collateral damage, without many of the devastatingly destructive side effects we see commonly today. This a progress of sorts, but not the progress we desperately need towards lowering cancer incidence.

Immunotherapy, on the other hand, does attempt to address the effect our unhealthy lifestyles have on our defences. Most modern medicine for chronic conditions seeks to address symptoms, cancer being a notable example. Rather than open up the ‘why’ question, rather than getting to the root of the problem to make changes that lead away from cancer and towards health, all the focus is on dealing with the end result.  And whilst a failed immune system is itself a symptom of our toxic lifestyles, it is at least further back down the chain of events leading to cancer; it is the symptom that allowed cancer through the door.

Immunotherapy represents an attempt to work with our natural defences, as opposed to destroying them in the name of unavoidable collateral damage. As such it must be welcomed as a step in a better direction. But, that said, we should still not be looking to immunotherapy as one of the ‘big’ answers we need. At best, it may hold promise of more effective and possibly even more permanent treatment of cancer - a laudable aim - but still it will do nothing to halt the ever rising numbers of us that are falling prey to our toxic lifestyles and environment. In the face of an unprecedented health crisis, is cancer research guilty of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’?

If you have cancer and are looking for support in taking an Integrative approach please call our helpline on 0870 163 2990 or send us an email

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