Greetings! I’m writing this blog post from Singapore, where I attended The International Congress of Cancer and Clinical Oncology. One of the perks of this geeky job as a professional lab rat is that I get to travel to some really cool places to present the results of my scientific research. Now, you would think that a scientific conference should and would be immune to infiltration by the woo. Hell, that’s what I thought before I sat through a talk from a dude who runs a “private clinic” that offers, among other things, hyperthermia and antioxidant “therapies” for cancer patients, the latter of which includes juicing.
Not juicing in the steroid misuse sense, but literal drink-a-glass-of-carrot-juice-and-you-will-reduce-free-radicals-in-your-tumor sense. The guy was literally pushing antioxidants like vitamin C, green tea, and juice – carrot juice, grapefruit juice, but not beet juice (high sugar) – as well as hyperthermia (heat treatment) and intermittent fasting (one of the new fads in weight loss) to treat cancer.
He even cited Linus Pauling, father of the woo woo based vitamin cult that gave rise to western obsession with supplements. His wild (and scientifically UNFOUNDED) claims that high doses of vitamin C could cure everything from the common cold to the flu to cancer still plague bookstores, the wellness industry, and popular culture. They are COMPLETELY UNTRUE!
Fuckballs. I thought about walking out of the talk, but then decided it would give me the opportunity to understand the mind and inner workings of a woo woo peddler in a fucked up know-your-enemy kind of way. Then, I set about dissecting his bullshit claims and countering them with the real scientific scoop.
What do we know about oxidative stress in cancer? Cancer cells accumulate reactive oxygen species (ROS), including peroxide and superoxide, as byproducts of altered metabolism and dysfunction of mitochondria, the energy production center of all cells. These oxygen free radicals can act as mutagens, altering DNA and, when the mutation hits an oncogene, tumor suppressor gene, or gene that affects the cell’s ability to move, the mutation drive disease progression. ROS also induce inflammatory responses that drive cancer growth, survival, and progression. Since ROS benefit the tumor, therapies designed to block ROS with antioxidants should help patients with cancer, right?
Well, as with most aspects of cancer, the story in much more complicated. Turns out, antioxidants have actually been shown to make cancers worse in the laboratory setting and perhaps in humans! How’s that possible? Well, it turns out that high levels of ROS induce oxidative stress in tumor cells and drive them to die. Cancer cells, including breast cancer cells, fine tune their redox balance to different state that normal cells to take advantage of the growth benefits while avoiding levels that would induce cell death.
And that, dear followers, is part of the problem with woo woo, particularly this kind of woo woo that, on first glance, seems reasonable and incorporates bits of legitimate science into the scam. What’s the harm? Well, for patients visiting this guy’s clinic between rounds of chemotherapy – or for patients who skip prescribed, medically/scientifically vetted therapies in pursuit of “natural cures,” – the consequences could be deadly. And even if sitting in a heat chamber and drinking tons of juices doesn’t hurt in the health sense, it could definitely hurt the patient’s wallet.
Bottom line – if you want to add supplements or try alternative therapies (make sure they are COMPLIMENTARY alternative therapies – CAM – that work with your standard of care medical therapy), check with your doctor to determine whether it’s safe and beneficial.
References: Why Vitamin Pills Don’t Work, And May Be Bad For You; How Oxidative Stress May Kill Cancer Cells; Altered Tumor Metabolism Leads to Intensification of Oxidative Stress and Tumor Cell Death