LAST week I spent some time in the parallel universe of alternative cancer treatments — products that often make huge promises with little evidence to support either their safety or efficacy.
I was looking into the so-called black salves, topical treatments that supporters claim have been “successfully removing cancer of all kinds for generations”.
That quote is from an international petition calling on governments around the world to “decriminalise” use of the products in humans.
Apparently, we are being denied access to these miracle cures by a conspiracy of government and private interests set on protecting the “trillion dollar [cancer] industry that allows legalised experimentation on human beings”.
In fact, as the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) warned last year, black salves are escharotics, that is, corrosive pastes that burn off tissue, cancerous or otherwise.
Although these products are not on the Register of Therapeutic Goods and thus cannot be legally marketed in Australia, it’s not hard to find sites spruiking them online under various names including Cansema, Bloodroot and red salve.
Dr Stephen Barrett, founder of the Quackwatch site, has documented some of the horror stories resulting from use of these supposedly “natural” cures.
He details one case about a woman whose naturopath diagnosed a bump on her nose as cancerous and told her to apply a black herbal salve: “Within a few days, [the patient’s] face became very painful and she developed red streaks that ran down her cheeks. Her anxious phone call to the naturopath brought the explanation that the presence of the lines was a good sign because they ‘resemble a crab, and cancer is a crab’. He also advised her to apply more of the black salve. Within a week, a large part of her face, including her nose, sloughed off.”
There’s a photo on the Quackwatch site, though it’s not for the squeamish. It took 3 years and 17 plastic surgery operations to reconstruct the women’s face.
None of that is likely to affect the views of devoted fans, who include Meryl Dorey, former leader of Australia’s most virulent anti-vaccination group, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN).
Ms Dorey was one of the subjects of a complaint to the TGA last year about online advertising of black salves as a cure for cancer.
In an online interview detailed by the TGA, Ms Dorey had sung the praises of the “combination of herbs and minerals” known as black salve, or nature’s scalpel, which she said had been used for at least 2000 years.
“Now, I’ve used it myself um, on a cancer that I had on my shoulder and I’ve gotta tell you it is like a scalpel, it cut it out in a perfect circle. Um, and it got rid of it completely”, she said in the interview.
The TGA found the claims that black salve was a treatment or cure for cancer, and that it was safe and free of side effects, were misleading, unverified and illegal. Ms Dorey and her colleagues were required to publish a retraction and cease promoting the product.
Did they learn from the experience? It doesn’t look like it.
Being reined in by bodies like the TGA just feeds the conspiracy theories.
The AVN website still lists a DVD promoting black salves among its products although you can’t actually buy the DVD: “Important — Please Note — the Australian Government do NOT want you to know about the information contained in this video”, the website trumpets in oversized red type.
Shysters making improbable claims about various remedies and cures have always been with us, and cancer patients are probably more vulnerable than most to their hype.
An eminently sensible position statement from the Cancer Council was released last week and suggested that about half of all cancer patients in developed countries might be using complementary and alternative therapies.
Of course, many of the non-medical approaches taken by cancer patients are harmless or even beneficial. Adopting a healthier diet or meditation can be useful adjuncts to conventional treatment.
However, others can cause harmful side-effects or interactions with other treatment, which makes it particularly disturbing that fewer than half of cancer patients who use alternative treatments reveal that fact to their doctors.
The Cancer Council’s excellent series of recommendations urges patients to reveal their use of alternative treatments to their doctors, as well as encouraging conventional health care providers to routinely discuss such therapies with patients and survivors “in an open and non-judgemental manner”.
That surely has to be the best chance we have of combating the black salves of this world.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 11 March 2013