No, Harvard doctors aren’t studying a cancer survivor’s diet.
A Science Enthusiast
I was born and raised in Evansville, Indiana. With a population of about 120,000 people, it’s a relatively big fish in a small pond. You have to drive two hours to get to a city that’s larger (Louisville, Kentucky), and you’re unlikely to see very many people on that barren stretch of I-64 that adjoins Evansville to Louisville.
But damn it, they really try to be a big city. There are five major public high schools, a small baseball team, and a hockey team (they’re even having tryouts this fall). The downtown area is essentially nonexistent, and they have a mediocre street festival every October (although anyone from Evansville will be quick to tell you that it’s the second largest street festival, right behind Mardi Gras). Oh boy.
They also have three local news channels – ABC, Fox, and NBC. So I was surprised this morning when I woke up and saw that a story from the NBC affiliate, WFIE, was trending on Facebook. And then I read the story.
It’s sort of cute when a local news station thinks it’s doing a good job reporting on news but fucking it up entirely, until you realize how much misinformation they’re spreading that will likely result in someone not listening to an actual doctor. WFIE ran a story about a woman from Milwaukee who had cancer, but went into spontaneous remission. Except that’s not how they branded it, and it’s not how they reported on it.
Okay, okay. So maybe they took a little liberty with the headline, right? After all, they have to get people to click on it so they get paid. Except, then they do this:
For Kathy Bero, time in the kitchen is an investment in good health.
“It isn’t really about eating healthy,” Bero said. “It’s about eating specific foods that fight disease.”
She ought to know. In 2005, doctors diagnosed Bero with inflammatory breast cancer. Her prognosis for survival was 21 months.
At the time, Bero was 41 years old and the mother of two young girls. She fought the disease with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. But the cancer fought back.
“Eleven months after my first diagnosis, I was diagnosed with a high-grade tumor in my head and neck,” Bero said.
The medication took its toll.
“My kidneys were failing; my liver was failing,” Bero said. “My lungs were damaged. My heart was damaged. I told my oncologist that I’m done with that protocol because one way or another, I’m going to die. And I don’t want to go that way.”
Well, no kidding. Chemotherapy sucks, but cancer is worse.
It was then she decided to go off chemotherapy and use a strategy suggested by a friend.
“My friend kept saying you have to learn about anti-angiogenic foods,” Bero said.
Oh, no. No no no. Your friend is trying to help, and they think they’re doing a good thing by offering comfort and giving the illusion of options, but unless your friend is a doctor, you should not be taking medical advice from them.
The Harvard team is not researching her diet. They’re examining cancer patients who have had “exceptional outcomes” with cancer. The WFIE article is incredibly misleading until you get to the very bottom (which, let’s be honest, most people won’t).
Surgical oncologist David Gorski has written about this very subject on ScienceBasedMedicine.org, where he discussed chemotherapy versus death from cancer:
Yes, chemotherapy can make you feel nauseated and make you throw up. It can make your hair fall out. It can temporarily depress the immune system. It can cause bleeding complications, such as GI bleeding. It can cause kidney damage. It can cause heart damage. It can cause lung damage. It can cause nerve damage. It can make you lose weight. It can even result in your death from complications. In short, it is not something to be used lightly. Unfortunately, the disease it’s meant to fight is a formidable foe indeed. It is your own cells, and all too often the difference between the toxicity of chemotherapy against the cancer and against normal cells is not that large.
But what does cancer do? How do cancer patients die? They suffer and die in protean ways. Cancer can do everything chemotherapy can do (with the exception of hair loss) and more. I’ve seen more patients than I care to know suffer and die from cancer. I’ve seen family members suffer and die from cancer, most recently my mother-in-law last year.
Dr. Gorski goes on to explain other events that happen when you choose to die from cancer:
Dying from untreated cancer can mean unrelenting pain that leaves you the choice of being drugged up with narcotics or being in agony.
Dying from untreated cancer can mean unrelenting vomiting from a bowel obstruction. It can mean having a nasogastric tube to drain your digestive juices and prevent you from throwing up. Alternatively, it can mean having to have a tube sticking out of your stomach to drain its fluids.
Dying from untreated cancer can mean bleeding because you don’t have enough platelets to clot.
I’d take the chemo that has been proven to be effective over that any day.
But the WFIE news story doesn’t stop with the nonsensical “food is medicine” trope that we’ve seen over and over again.
Bero said her diet – combined with a type of alternative medicine called Reiki, along with meditation and visualization – worked.
“My doctors just kept saying, ‘Huh. That is interesting,'” she said.
Reiki is not medicine. Reiki is pseudoscience. Reiki consists of a person putting their hands near someone in the world’s most expensive game of “I’m not touching you.” The idea is that the “Reiki master” is “channeling energy” into the person who is getting scammed. Sometimes, pretty-looking crystals are involved. (Note: if you think Reiki works, I will gladly stand next to you and not talk to you or touch you for $50 an hour, just email me at dan@aScienceEnthusiast.com and we’ll get something setup).
There’s early research into the “visualization” aspect of the claim, but not in the way that’s being presented. Preliminary research has shown that psychadelics can help those suffering from Anxiety or PTSD, and some people have reported that while on an acid trip, they “see” their cancer inside them, helping them cope with their diagnosis. While it is important to help people maintain some sense of normalcy and not fall into a deep depression, it’s not going to cure their cancer. More research is needed into the mental health benefits from this, though early results are promising – and only from a mental heath aspect.
The article continues:
Today, more than 12 years after her first diagnosis, Bero, who is 54, said she’s cancer-free and now works as a cancer coach.
“She’s teaching me food is the best form of medicine,” said Phil Baugh, one of Bero’s clients. Baugh, a 43-year-old father of three, is fighting brain cancer.
“It’s stopped growing now, so it’s wonderful,” Baugh said. “And a huge part of that is food.”
It’s great that her cancer is in remission – nobody is upset or denying that she’s feeling better. But food is certainly not a “huge part of that.”
Spontaneous remission is not new. It’s been observed for thousands of years, well before chemotherapy or germ theory existed. It likely has something to do with genetics, possibly a well-balanced diet, and being physically active, but eating an extra couple gloves of garlic and some berries every day is certainly not going to cure cancer.
The danger with stories like this is you only hear about the people who did this and survived. History is written by the victors, after all.
The overwhelming majority of people who used “food as medicine” instead of chemotherapy aren’t around to tell us about their mistakes, because they’re dead. And generally, dead people don’t write books (unless you wait a couple hundred years then a small cult makes up stories about you as if they knew you when you were alive).
The danger with stories like the one WFIE posted is that, intentional or not, it undermines people’s confidence in physicians. It plays on people’s narcissistic tendencies and confirms to them that they know more about cancer than their doctor does. The danger is that this will lead people to think that they know more about what’s happening to their bodies than someone who has literally dedicated their life to doing research in that specific field. The danger is not that someone is going to question their doctor or ask their doctor about options – that’s a good thing. Ask your doctor questions. If they’re a good doctor, they’ll be happy to answer them.
The danger is that someone, somewhere will read this story, stop getting chemotherapy, give money to charlatans who pretend Reiki and other pseudoscience help anything at all, and then spend the short time they have left in pure agony.
And we’ll never know when that happens, because they won’t be around to tell us about it.