Screw the Woo Woo: WTF is up with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vaginas/Butt Stuff??

Like many actual scientists and rational human beings, I have issues with Gwyneth Paltrow’s activities as a “wellness guru” by way of her company, GOOP. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an incredible actress and supports some great philanthropic work, including the work of The American Cancer Society and The Breast Cancer Research Foundation. And I don’t have a big problem with her capitalizing on her fame and looks in the beauty industry. We all like to look and feel pretty.

But GOOP as a resource for health and wellness is another matter. From coffee enemas for “detox” (note – all you need for detox are a liver and functional kidneys), vaginal steaming (that’s a recipe for a rip-roaring yeast infection and severe burns), and jade eggs to stick up your vagina (not healthy – and don’t just take my word for it; Dr. Jen Gunter, OB/GYN and author of The Vagina Bible confirms what common sense would tell most women: nothing good can come from sticking rocks up your hoohah), this whole “wellness” thing is actually pretty freakin’ unhealthy. So much so, in fact, that a lawsuit cost the biz $145K (for baseless claims about the benefits of vagina eggs – really just a drop in the bucket for them) and now they include disclaimers about their whackadoodle health claims.

And…now she’s selling a candle that allegedly smells like her vagina. You can’t make this shit up. The candle is called “This Smells Like My Vagina.” It’s right there in the name. Now, I’m not going to unpack all of the patriarchal bullshit that goes along with how women’s bodies should look and smell – your vagina smells fine. Trust me. It smells like it’s supposed to. No one is marketing products to freshen up sweaty ballsacks, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about sexist double standards when it comes to eau de genitals.

But aside from all of that, what does Gwyneth’s snatch-scented candle (allegedly) do? And, I have to ask, did she actually stick the candles into her snatch to infuse them with her feminine “energy” and alluring musk? Apparently, this candle actually smells like “a blend of geranium, citrusy bergamot, and cedar absolutes juxtaposed with Damask rose and ambrette seed [note – um, that’s not what vagina’s smell like] that puts us in mind of fantasy, seduction, and a sophisticated warmth.”

Well, at least she didn’t claim it cures cancer, so bonus.

This is the same woman who falsely claimed that underwire bras could cause breast cancer – they can’t and don’t. That shit really pisses me off. She’s not a trained healthcare provider, a scientist working in a laboratory (the GOOP “lab” show that’s coming to Netflix is NOT a lab and I’m probably going to rage post and Tweet about all of the false claims that will no doubt come out of that train wreck), and she has no expertise in this arena. So, my advice to Gwyneth Paltrow is this: stay in your fucking lane. You’re an actress, not a health expert.

Seriously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a bit of…whimsy when it comes to lifestyle choices. If it feels good and it doesn’t hurt you, then, hey, you do you. The problem is that much of what overpriced celebrity brands like GOOP peddle actually CAN hurt you (remember that whole vaginal burn thing a few paragraphs back?). Worse, in this age of anti-intellectualism, where a large segment of the world population does not value or respect scientists and healthcare provider expertise, celebrities have become a go-to for “the answers” to all of your health woes. That’s a problem.

So what do we do? For starters, use common sense. If something sounds weird (even if it’s allegedly been practiced for centuries by ancient wise women in some place the seller is culturally appropriating for financial gain), it’s probably a scam. If your healthcare providers and people with actual degrees and expertise (e.g. SciBabe, Jen Gunter, Sana Goldberg – Dr. Oz totally does NOT count) advise against it, it’s probably a scam. If it’s a seemingly ordinary item (vagina scented candle) that costs a ridiculous amount of money ($75 – what the ACTUAL fuck), it’s probably a scam. Be smart, stay safe, and don’t be fooled!

Click here for some more hilariously/sad/ridiculous vagina trends from Ms. Paltrow . For SciBabe’s entertaining and informative take on Gwyneth Paltrow and GOOP, click here.

Science Break! Cancer 101: How Normal Cells Become Transformed Into Cancer

Cancer has been with us since we became human, and probably before, since cancer isn’t common to our species. In a fundamental way, cancer is us. Cancer was once healthy tissue, starting out as a cell in your body fulfilling its function to keep the collective whole, you, functioning. This cell toed the line, divided when it was supposed to, stopped dividing when it was supposed to, differentiated and specialized to perform its function, and if it had remained normal, it might have died when told to do so after that function was fulfilled. Those are three of the hallmarks of cancer: uncontrolled cell division (cells making more cells), failure to respond to the normal programs that put the brakes on cell division, and failure to undergo programmed cell death (die when the time is right).

The process by which a normal cell becomes cancerous is called malignant transformation or carcinogenesis. This video provides an excellent overview of the process.

To understand how cancer forms, we need a basic framework for understanding cellular function and its regulation at the molecular level. Don’t get bogged down in the terms. Cellular function refers to how the cell does its programmed job, how it grows and divides, and how it dies, the same basic life cycle that the human host experiences. Regulation at the molecular level means the plan the cell follows, the blueprint for its growth, function, and death. It starts with DNA, the double helix genetic blueprint in all cells that contains the instructions for the cell’s functions and life plan.

Illustration of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology – Nuclear DNA is transcribed to an intermediate, called RNA, which is then used as a template for translation into amino acid chains that form proteins. Illustration credit: Shutterstock.

So what does DNA actually do, or perhaps the better question, how does the information encoded in DNA actually instruct the cell what to do? This gets into something call the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. That’s a fancy title for the way in which the instructions encoded in DNA are used to manufacture proteins, the work horses of cells. Now, when most people think about proteins, they envision a juicy piece of meat or powerful muscles, and the components used to build muscle fibers are proteins. But proteins are much more than that. They are the essential building blocks of cells, which in turn build tissues, organs, and all parts of the body. They can be structural, like the fibers that form the cell’s cytoskeleton and histone proteins that wrap around DNA strands and protect them. They can be functional, forming enzymes that do everything from metabolize nutrients, breaking them down into usable building blocks for building biomass and generating energy for the cell. They also play a critical role in transmitting information within cells and between cells, integrating communication between different parts of the body.

Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, and the order in which they are put together is determined by the sequence of the portion of DNA that encodes that protein. That sequence is called a gene. But as a matter of practicality, since DNA is housed in a subcellular organelle called the nucleus and therefore inaccessible to the protein production machinery in the cytoplasm, and because the cell needs to protect the integrity of its DNA, proteins are not built using pieces of actual DNA. The portion of the DNA, the gene, that encodes instructions for making a specific protein, is first transcribed into an intermediate molecule, call messenger RNA. Transcriptional machinery within the nucleus unwinds and separates the DNA strands, using one strand to copy the information necessary to build a protein. The messenger RNA molecule is then transported out of the nucleus and used by the protein synthesis machinery to translate the information encoded by the mRNA to protein. That’s the Central Dogma: DNA transcribed to RNA, and RNA translated to protein.

The abnormal growth that is cancer is controlled by abnormal proteins that were once (supposed to be) normal proteins. Most of the proteins that drive cancer are proteins that regulate cellular division and cellular survival, and they fall into two basic categories: oncoproteins and tumor suppressors. Oncoproteins are hyperactive proteins that start out as normal proteins, encoded by normal genes, proto-oncogenes. They become oncogenes due to alterations in DNA: mutations that change the DNA sequence, which in turn changes the amino acid encoded and the function of the protein; DNA repair mistakes that cause multiple copies of genes (amplification) to produce too much of a protein that drives growth and survival; changes in DNA that make the gene more accessible, which in turn causes the cell to make more copies of the encoded protein. DNA damage that causes breaks, which can eliminate genes that normally keep cell growth controlled, can silence tumor suppressors.

Types of DNA damage – if damage is not repaired or is improperly repaired, alterations in DNA (e.g. mutations, deletions, amplifications) that encodes growth and/or survival genes can lead to malignant transformation of a normal cell into a cancer cell. Link to photo source.

What’s worse is that the longer the cancer grows unchecked, the more mutations and DNA changes it collects. Those alterations and mutations that give the cell an advantage (more growth, better survival, the ability to break away from the tumor mass and spread) make the cancer more aggressive and difficult to treat.

Cancer Formation and Abnormal Growth – Illustration credit: Deposit Photos.

In my next post, I’ll cover the process of malignant transformation of breast cells, which leads to breast cancer.

Screw The Woo Woo: Please Don’t Put Candles in Your Ears (Something I Never Thought I’d Have To Write)

As long as the Internet exists, I will (sadly) NEVER run out of things to blog about on the woo woo front. Scratch that, as long as people exist, I’ll never run out of things to blog about on the woo woo front. For today’s installment, I’ll be covering the bizarre and dangerous practice of ear candling.

Ear candling. As in shoving a FUCKING CANDLE into your EAR and LIGHTING IT to somehow magically clean out earwax and toxins and or some such nonsense. Unlike other woo woo scams I’ve covered, this one has absolutely no science associated with its claims. Rather than misrepresenting science, it simply ignores it. And, as usual with this bullshit, its proponents claim it can ~definitely~ cure your cancer.

Spoiler alert – sticking a lit candle into your ear canal will NOT cure any type of cancer.

As usual, no links to sites that actually support this practice, but the “practice” goes as follows: (1) get a fabric cone soaked in wax or paraffin (blessing by a fake, culturally appropriating “shaman” optional); (2) cut a hole in the bottom of a paper plate or tin pan and stick the side you don’t light through the hole – this will keep wax and ash from falling on your face, because safety first (*snort*); (3) lie on your side, stick the end of the candle you don’t light in your ear canal, and get a friend to light the candle; (4) relax while you make like a human candle holder for about 15 minutes then repeat with the other ear.

Why would anyone do this? The “theory” is that the burning candle creates a gentle suction that pulls earwax and gross toxins out of your ear. Alternatively, the low heat from the burning candle is thought to melt earwax and allow it to fall out of the ear canal naturally after a few days. Some even claim you can open the candle and see all of the disgusting material sucked out of your ear, kind of like viewing (in horror and fascination) what peel-off face masks pull out of your pores.

Trust me, what came out of my face that day was NOT pretty, but my skin did feel smoother after…

Other wild claims about the supposed benefits of ear candling (also called ear or auricular coning, thermal/thermo-auricular therapy, candle/coning therapy) include:

removing wax, bacteria, and other debris from the ear canal
treating sinus infections
improving hearing or reversing hearing loss
relieving sore throats
treating colds and flus
relieving headaches and migraines
improving mental clarity
purifying the blood
improving lymphatic circulation
clearing the eyes and improving vision
reducing pain related to jaw aches and temporomandibular disorders
reducing tension and stress
reducing vertigo

Not only are there no studies to substantiate any of these benefits, the FDA has been warning the public against this dangerous practice, with risks including:

starting a fire
burns to the face, ear canal, eardrum, and middle ear
injury to the ear from dripping wax
ears plugged by candle wax
bleeding
puncture of the eardrum
delay in seeking needed medical care for underlying conditions such as sinus and ear infections, hearing loss, cancer, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders. (TMJ disorders often cause headache and painful sensations in the area of the ear, jaw, and face).

Bottom line: if you are bothered by what you believe is excess earwax, sinus and ear infections, TMJ, or other ailments, see a healthcare provider. Sticking a candle in your ear is not a solution, and, quite frankly, it’s a really stupid and dangerous thing to do. Stick to using candles for mood lighting and ambiance.

Heading Photo Credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/bright-burn-burnt-candle-278823/

Don’t Be A Hero – See A Therapist!

Living with cancer (even post diagnosis, treatment, and in remission, once you’ve had cancer, you’re always living with it) is weird. One minute I’m going about my day and not thinking about my body, my janky scars, and what’s left of my boobs (which I’m soooooooooo grateful to still have). Then, at strange, random moments, I’ll suddenly stop and think, “Fuck, I had cancer! I might still have cancer. What if it’s still there? What if it’s hiding out in my body and lurking, getting ready to say ‘Boo!’ two, five, ten, twenty years down the road?”

That shit will keep you up at night, give you panic attacks, make you hypervigilant (i.e. your lizard brain starts looking for threats around every corner), and make you tough to live with – even for you. I’d been down that road before with two bouts of postpartum depression (PPD) after the birth of each of my children. I recognized the symptoms once I slowed down and stopped using my favorite unhealthy coping mechanism – avoidance. Shortly after my diagnosis, I worked to the point of exhaustion in the lab, at home, and on my side gig, staying up late in the name of productivity and maximizing creativity, but I wasn’t fooling anyone.

I was fucking terrified.

After a year and a half of ups and downs – with a short stint of therapy before I learned I wouldn’t need chemotherapy – I gave myself a cosmic kick in the ass, acknowledged that I was not fine, and that I needed help. I’d tried using the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques I’d learned while in treatment for PPD, and I’ve been on anti-depressant medication for years (and make no apologies for it – if you can’t make your own neurotransmitters, store bought is fine), but I was still losing sleep and spending so much time worrying about if/when the cancer might come back that I wasn’t fully enjoying the life I was lucky to have.

I stopped, took a deep breath, and (finally) pondered what I’d been through with cancer – the shock and terror of the diagnosis; the fog of uncertainty while waiting for pathology reports, blood work; weighing the pros and cons of each surgical options; the needles for biopsies and implantation of SAVI SCOUT devices; waking up to a new body after surgery; finding out I had a positive lymph node; the burn of that tender healing flesh during and after radiation therapy; the indignities of hormone suppression therapy; loss of time with family, loss of work, loss of my life as I knew it and coming to terms with a new life.

I was alive, I’d been able to skip chemotherapy, and my prognosis was great, and yet, I was still broken. Looking at the list from above, it seems like a no-brainer. Of COURSE I was broken. But my biggest blindspot was and is me. It took a while, but I finally understood that I couldn’t process this on my own. I needed help so I could be the best version of myself for my family, my friends, my colleagues, my community, and myself.

So I got myself back in therapy, got a refresher on CBT along with adding mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises beyond the standard inhale for four beats and exhale for four beats to stave off anxiety (inhaling for four beats and exhaling for seven worked wonders for my sleep cycle), and the COOOLEST of all new (to me) techniques – postponed worrying! This has been a game-changer for me. I’m a scheduler – working mom with two side gigs and a husband who’s out of town half the week. I’m also a worrier. The simple act of taking time to sit down and devote my attention to my worries (writing them down and, using CBT techniques, identifying and fighting cognitive distortions) for a set amount of time has helped me NOT dwell on those worries for the rest of the day.

There are no downsides to taking care of your mental health, and plenty of benefits. The best part? In addition to helping you live your best, quality life, taking care of your mental health can be beneficial to outcomes like decreased recurrence and longer survival. References here and here.

Will there still be hard days? Absolutely. And it’s okay to go down into the well of despair. What therapy can do is give you the tools you need to climb out of that well and get back to your regularly scheduled life.

Looking for mental health care resources, or maybe support groups? Here are some places to start: American Cancer Society, American Association for Cancer Research, Susan G. Komen, Cancer Support Helpline. Gilda’s Club is also a fantastic resource for cancer patients, survivors, and their families!

Special note – this post is by no means an endorsement of “the power of positive thinking” and toxic positivity (that’s a thing – people who tell you to just shut out natural, negative emotions associated with trauma are dickwagons and you should walk away from them. You have to process your emotions in a healthy way).

Screw The Woo Woo: Antioxidants and Cancer (When Woo Shows Up At A Freakin’ Science Conference!)

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.


From Experimental & Molecular Medicine (2016) 48, e269; doi:10.1038/emm.2016.119

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

Screw the Woo Woo: For The Love of The Flying Spaghetti Monster Do NOT Sun Your Bunghole!

Beavis and Butt-head are the intellectual property of
Mike Judge.

In this installment of Screw The Woo Woo, I’m tackling a “wellness” trend that’s been making the rounds on social media, including my Facebook feed, and that is disturbing on sooooooooo many levels: butthole sunning. At first, I thought it was a joke. I really, REALLY hoped it was a joke. Then again, jade eggs for the vagina, vagina steaming, and coffee enemas were (and apparently still are) a thing, so what’s one more bizarre bit of ridiculousness in the wooniverse? This isn’t directly related to breast cancer, BUT(T), since ultraviolet light from the sun can cause skin cancer, I’ve decided to tackle the subject and debunk its alleged benefits to, er, bring to light the very real dangers of exposing your junk to the sun.

That and one of the proponents of this weird ass practice is making shady claims about how butthole sunning balances hormones in the sex organs. It doesn’t. More on that later.

First off, the notion that sunlight can enter your body through your vagina or anus is ludicrous, as is the notion that butthole sunning prevents the leakage of “chi” from the body, mostly because “chi” isn’t a thing, and if you’re experiencing any kind of leakage from your anus or genitals, you DEFINITELY need to seek your doctor. The vagina doesn’t just magically open to the heavens like a flower when you open your legs to the sun. Don’t believe me? Read The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter, M.D. and gynecologist who covers everything you need to know about care and maintenance of your girly parts.

In addition to blocking chi leakage, woo woo practitioner MetaphysicalMegan (~a clearly qualified source of accurate, reliable information~) claims that sunning your perineum (a.k.a. the taint, the gooch, the fleshy fun bridge) provides a myriad of health benefits (link to a story that shares her tweet – I refuse to link directly to woo woo bullshit sites) – such as regulating “hormone function in the sex organs.”

That claim is a GIANT steaming pile of bullshit.

Hormone function in sex organs is regulated by intracellular hormone receptors expressed in the cells of internal sex organs that are well-protected from the outside world, including sunlight. For example, estrogen receptors in females are expressed in mammary glandular epithelium deep within breast tissue (where they can contribute to the growth of breast cancer cells in ER+ disease), the endometrial tissue that lines the uterus (internal organ protected from sunlight), ovary, bone (which is why bone loss is a concern for menopausal women and breast cancer patients on estrogen suppression therapy – estrogen contributes to cellular signaling pathways that promote bone growth), and other organs and tissues that are protected from the elements. As sunlight cannot reach estrogen receptor expressing cells, it cannot influence the function of estrogen signaling within them.

But what’s the harm, you might ask? Lots of people believe in and incorporate New Age and Wellness practices into their daily lives. Well, in this case, exposing delicate skin to ultraviolet sun rays without the benefit of sunscreen can actually be harmful. Ultraviolet light breaks bonds in the nucleotide bases (thymine and cyotsine) of DNA in skin cells that absorb it. This can facilitate abnormal bonding between adjacent thymine (thymine dimers) and cytosine (cytosine dimers) that form kinks in DNA. If not repaired, this can lead to DNA mutations that contribute to the development of skin cancers. Now, MetaphysicalMegan recommends 30 seconds, but given that every second you are in the sun, 50 to 100 of these dimers are formed in each skin cell. That’s a hell of a place to risk getting skin cancer, not to mention that the proverbial “places where the sun don’t shine” are horrible places to get a freakin’ sunburn!

Bottom (giggle snort) line: exposing your asshole/taint/vagina/penis/nutsack to the sun isn’t going to help your health. It’ll probably give you a sunburn, it can increase your risk of skin cancer, and it will most certainly make you look like a fucking idiot. Don’t do it.

Publicly available references from The US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health: Estrogen receptor expression and function in female reproductive disease; Estrogen receptors and human disease: an update

*Apparently Josh Brolin tried butthole/perineum sunning and, not surprisingly, regretted it. Yup, not even Thanos can handle that flavor of sick burn. The evil part of me REALLY hopes that Ryan Reynolds works in some butthole sunning jokes at Cable’s expense in the next Deadpool film!

Maybe they’ll even do a little superhero bro bonding with joint butthole sunning. They could even bring along Colosus and Dopinder.

I mean, who DOESN’T want to see dat ass? You’re picturing it. I know you are!

Screw The Woo Woo: Turmeric and Cancer

Part of my mission in promoting science is fighting pseudoscience, scams, myths, and misinformation. This is the first in a series of Screw the Woo Woo posts. Woo woo, “supernatural, paranormal, occult, or pseudoscientific phenomena, or emotion-based beliefs and explanations,” is the antithesis of science. Unfortunately, woo woo is flashier and easier to market. From purveyors of alternative medicine, wellness and nutrition “gurus,” the diet and supplement industry, and new age whackadoodles, the woo woo movement offers the lure of “ancient wisdom,” “natural” alternatives to the evils of chemical medicines and toxins (spoiler alert – everything is made of fucking chemicals, and if you want to get rid of toxins, all you need are functioning liver and kidneys), and easy peasy lose-the-weight-and-keep-it-off-without-diet-and-exercise scams.

The “war” between medicine and so-called “natural” remedies is really fucking stupid.

Legit sciences needs better PR and marketing.

My mission is to help with that, as well as helping the public fine-tune their bullshit-o-meters in the Internet age.

Soto ayam – see link below for recipe

Now, I can’t tackle all of these issues, but I can and will do my part to dispel some common myths I’ve encountered as they relate to cancer and breast cancer, starting with turmeric. I love curry, soto ayam, and other delicious South Asian recipes featuring this delicious spice. Turmeric gets a lot of attention for being a health food with medicinal properties. Don’t believe me? Google it. You’ll find a slew of sites selling turmeric as a supplement, articles from such ~reputable~ (see ~? That’s the sarcasm symbol) sources like healthline.com (I refuse to link to woo sites) touting the “10 Proven Health Benefits of Turmeric and Curcumin.” One of the benefits reported by the supplement/diet/nutrition/new-age/woo woo movement is that turmeric prevents and/or cures cancer.

So, let me break it down, because it’s, well, complicated. The short answer to the question, “Will eating boatloads of turmeric keep me from getting cancer or treat my cancer?” is no. The compound Curcumin, scientifically known as (1E,6E)‑1,7‑bis(4‑hydroxy‑3‑-methoxyphenyl) hepta‑1,6‑diene‑3,5‑dione, is natural polyphenol that is derived from the turmeric plant. This compound is, in fact, being actively investigated for anticancer activity. Here’s where it gets tricky, though, as noted by Alexander Pope – A little learning is a dangerous thing ; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring. In other words, you’ve got to dig a little deeper when it comes to reports of so-called “health foods” and “superfoods.” Yes, there is some evidence that, in a laboratory setting, Curcumin can interfere with the ability of cancer cells grown in a dish to divide and survive (growth), move (an essential part of invasion and metastatic spread), and attract blood vessels that feed the tumor (angiogenesis). It also shows some activity in animal models of cancer (human tumors grown in mice) and has reportedly shown some benefit in clinical trials*. So that means we should all be eating turmeric all the time, right?

Not so fast. Yes, Curcumin may help fight cancer – though more research is needed – but there are problems with the leap between eating turmeric and getting the benefits of Curcumin. For starters, Curcumin only constitutes 2-3% of the turmeric root, so in order to get enough Curcumin from eating this spice (which, like most spices, is used pretty sparingly to flavor food), you’d have to eat truckloads. Then there’s the problem of pharmacokinetics (PK) – a fancy way of saying how stable a compound is in the human body and how well it reaches its target. “The bioavailability of Curcumin is low because of poor absorption, rapid elimination and/or low target organ concentration. This is due to the reason that Curcumin is conjugated when it is absorbed through the intestine, consequently free Curcumin is present in extremely low level at the target organ.”* Before this can be applied clinically, the PK needs to be greatly improved. It’s also the reason that taking Curcumin supplements probably won’t do you much good.

But what’s the harm? Aside from separating fact (turmeric is delicious) and fiction (eating turmeric will prevent and/or treat cancer), like all chemicals, natural or synthetic, it interacts with other chemicals in the human body. According to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Curcumin may interfere with the activity of some anti-cancer medicines, including chemotherapy and anti-estrogen therapies. Talk to your doc and make sure you tell your health care team about any supplements you’re taking or thinking about taking so they can help you weigh the risks, benefits, and dispel any misinformation or misconceptions about them.

Bottom line – no, turmeric isn’t going to protect you from cancer or cure any cancer you may already have. Your best protection is a healthy diet, exercise, avoiding tobacco, too much sun, and keeping up with your health screenings. Enjoy turmeric for the flavor, and rely on medicine for healthcare!

*Front Chem. 2014; 2: 113. – the link is to the publicly available version of this 2014 review article on Curcumin and cancer.

Soto ayam is an abso-freaking-lutely DELICIOUS soup that is super fun to make! I learned from an Indonesian-American, but this recipe is a decent approximation. For the paste used the flavor the broth, she recommended a mixture of shallots, garlic, ginger (fresh), turmeric (powder), macadamia nuts crushed with mortar and pestle. Once prepared, hot broth is poured over a bed of jasmine rice, thin rice vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, parsley or Thai basil, sliced green onions, chicken breast, and a boiled egg, halved.

Science Break! Intro to Cancer

Cancer, from the Latin word for “crab,” and from the Greek word for crab, karkinos or carcinos, used by Hippocrates to describe tumors, has plagued humanity since antiquity, and probably before recorded history. The name make sense, since the swollen blood vessels that surround, infiltrate, and feed the tumor mass, reminded Hippocrates of the claws of a crab.

From Brantley et al. (2002) Oncogene 10;21(46):7011-26. PMID: 12370823

As you can see from the picture on the left, this is an understandable comparison. The tumor in the picture is of an invasive mouse breast cancer. It is large, chock-a-block full of blood vessels, and looks like a disorganized blob. Not very pretty, and definitely deadly. Those blood vessels feed the tumor at the expense of the host (i.e. the patient’s body) and can help tumor cells that break off from the primary mass to travel through the bloodstream and colonize other organs in a process called metastasis.

By National Cancer Institute,
Public Domain,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/
w/index.php?curid=1972023

But what is cancer? Where does it come from? Why is it so difficult to treat? Let’s start with the first question. According to Google, cancer is defined as “a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in a part of the body.” Uncontrolled growth is a hallmark of cancer. Where does it come from? Cancer comes from the transformation of a normal cell, which works in harmony to fulfill its assigned function in the body, into a cell that abandons its normal function and growth constraints to divide (make copies of itself), displacing and destroying normal cells and tissue, hijacking resources (e.g. oxygen and nutrients delivered by blood vessels), and if untreated or undetected, spreading to other parts of the body and destroying normal cells in tissues outside of the site of origin. Why is it so difficult to treat? It’s complicated, but it relates to at least three inherent properties of cancer: (1) cancer comes from normal cells, which makes it difficult for the immune system to recognize it as a threat; (2) cancer cells are genetically unstable and prone to collecting mutations in DNA, the genetic blueprint that controls all cellular functions – see Figure on the left; and (3) because there are many genes that control normal cell growth, survival, and other processes exploited by cancer, each cancer is unique – cancer isn’t a single disease, even within the same tissue. There are at least 5 distinct types of breast cancer (and subtypes within those types), and each is as unique as the patient in which they grow. More on that in a future post.

Unlike infectious diseases caused by viruses and bacteria, pathogens that the immune system can recognize and defend against, cancer cells are seen by the immune system as “self” in many cases (more on anti-tumor immunity and immune checkpoint inhibitors on the market in a future post). Even worse, when immune cells do enter tumors, the tumors can adapt and send signals to immune cells instructing them to protect rather than destroy the tumor. The same genetic instability that enables mutations and changes that allow cancer cells to grow uncontrollably also allow cancer cells to adapt to attacks from the immune system and therapies including chemotherapy, molecularly targeted therapies (like estrogen and HER2 blockers in breast cancer). The rapidly growing tumor mass also tricks the surrounding tissue into sending new blood vessels to infiltrate and feed the tumor, allowing tumor cells to grow, survive, and invade to metastasize.

So, in a nutshell – normal cells + mutation(s) leading to uncontrolled growth + more mutations leading to transformation into malignant cells + more mutations + a blood supply + tricking the immune system = cancer. It’s more complicated than that, but this is a good starting point for understanding cancer.

Want more information? I’ll be posting a LOT more on this topic. In the meantime, here are some really amazing resources on the subject: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Book by Siddhartha Mukherjee and PBS documentary); SciShow’s excellent video on YouTube; Cancer Research UK’s video overview. is also an excellent resource.

Introduction

I love you with all my boobs. I would say my heart, but my boobs are bigger

Dr. Dana Brantley-Sieders, Ph.D. (photo credit Lillian Boeskool)

I’ve spent twenty years working as a biomedical breast cancer researcher. Then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I knew breast cancer before it whacked me upside my left boob and left me bleeding on the curb of uncertainty. I thought I knew cancer. I had a lot to learn. The purpose of this blog is to share my personal adventure with breast cancer, from the laboratory bench to my own bedside, and to provide accessible information about breast cancer biology for non-scientists. I say adventure, because I’d rather think of it as action movie with some really cool side quests instead of another tragedy-to-triumph saga. I’m not big on sagas. I am big on kickass intellectual badassery, pathological nerdiness, and talking about my sweet, sweet rack.

I’ll be posting about breast structure and function, how breast cancers arise from normal breast tissues. Notice I wrote “cancers” instead of “cancer.” Breast cancers are a actually a collection of diseases, and all breast cancers are different. To date, there are at least 5 subtypes, and subtypes within those subtypes.

It’s complicated, which is one reason why we haven’t cured these diseases. Another reason is how tricky and adaptable cancers are by their very nature. We’ll get into all of that in a few posts. In the meantime, let me get into the other purpose of this blog: fighting pseudoscience and scams with peer-reviewed, vetted science.

We live in an age of fake news and pseudoscience, made worse by the pervasive anti-intellectual and anti-science political culture gripping the United States and much of the world. The Internet and social media are plagued by scammers selling “alternative medicine” and woo woo “cures” for cancer. Through TALKING TATAS, I offer accurate, evidence-based science that is accessible to laypersons, including the more than three hundred thousand individuals diagnosed with breast cancer every year*, their caregivers, and their loved ones. Submit questions, ask for follow-up on any and all posts, be a part of the discussion. Knowledge is power, and it can save lives!

Welcome! I’m glad you’re here!