It was reported last week that the ex-Emmerdale actress, Leah Bracknell, has started a campaign to raise funds for alternative cures of her stage 4 lung cancer which she hopes to receive in Germany. Ms Bracknell, who after her acting career became a yoga teacher, said that, in the UK, she was given a ‘fairly brutal and bleak diagnosis, but one I am determined to challenge’. Her partner, Jez Hughes, explained the funds will be used for ‘immunotherapy and integrative medicine, which are seeing previously “incurable” cancers going into complete remission’.
Why Germany? You may well ask.
Germany has long been praised by fans of alternative medicine for its liberal stance on all sorts of unproven or disproven treatments. In Britain, there are just a few physicians who are devoted to alternative medicine; in Germany, there are thousands of them. In addition, Germany has a healthcare profession called the ‘Heilpraktiker’, a poorly regulated leftover from the Third Reich. Recently, a German Heilpraktiker was implicated in the deaths of several cancer patients who had travelled from abroad to receive his treatments, because German law is more liberal in these matters than other European countries. A Heilpraktiker has not studied medicine, yet is legally permitted to make all sorts of unsubstantiated claims and treat many serious diseases with unproven therapies.
The particular institution that Ms Bracknell hopes to go to promotes ‘integrative medicine’. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such places in Germany.
The treatments used include homeopathy, micronutrients, natural supplements, whole body hyperthermia and ozone therapy. As far as I can see, for none of these alleged alternative cancer ‘cures’ exists good evidence of efficacy.
Ms Bracknell’s partner mentions immunotherapy. This is an umbrella term for a diverse range of treatments that work by stimulating the immune system. Most of them are not in the realm of alternative medicine.
And what about ‘integrated medicine’? Can the integration of unproven therapies render routine healthcare more efficient? To me even the mere suggestion of such a phenomenon is ridiculous: mixing cow pie with apple pie will not improve the recipe.
As I have written previously, I believe that integrated medicine is little more than a front designed to appear attractive and convincing to consumers, healthcare professionals and policy makers. Anyone looking behind the façade will find boundless amounts of quackery, whether from naïve charlatans, unable to think critically, or irresponsible entrepreneurs, out to make a fast buck.
The money needed for such alternatives can be eye-watering. Ms Bracknell has raised £50,000 to cover the costs. No question, these funds would be well spent if the treatments worked. But do they?
The evidence does not support the notion of alternative cancer ‘cures’. In fact, the very term is nonsensical and a contradiction in terms: if an alternative cancer therapy worked, it would automatically become mainstream; if an alternative cancer therapy showed even the slightest shimmer of promise, it would get investigated and, if shown to work, become part of routine oncology. The notion that there are treatments out there that are effective but are nevertheless shunned by oncologists because they originate from nature or from some exotic tradition is, on reflection, utterly barmy.
Yet cancer patients can easily fall for such scams. They are understandably desperate and all too easily made to believe in weird conspiracy theories about ‘Big Pharma’ and the evil ‘establishment’ etc. My heart goes out to them, and I do hope they find the cure they are looking for.
But this does not mean that I have any patience or sympathy with those charlatans who offer false hope at high prices. Personally, I find it hard to imagine anything more despicable, unethical and irresponsible than that.
Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of A Scientist in Wonderland and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.