Tuesday, February 27, 2007

on quacks and cancer

About ten years ago, when I was a graduate student in molecular biology, I went home for Christmas and my mother had a book waiting for me. This book was called "The Cure for All Cancers". Certainly a bold title. My mother has a friend who is a devoted conspiracy theorist, and until rather recently, a devoted practitioner of various homeopathic health treatments (in recent years as her health as she has started to suffer from arthritis, she's become more of a believer in more standard health practices). She wanted to hear what a scientist had to say about this book, and so had my mother pass the book on to me.

I can remember that morning quite well. I was sitting at the table while my Mom was making waffles. My Dad was standing nearby while I read out loud various passages in the book. According to the author (I can still remember well), all cancers are caused by a type of worm that infects people. And this same worm can be rid from the body merely by building a small machine (that consists of a 9 volt battery and a few wires) and electrocuting yourself with it. According to the author, one Hulda Clark, the worms don't like the electricity, but you can tolerate it well. Well, we read a few chapters of this book (all in large type, so it went rather quickly) and my father and I laughed out loud at various parts. It all seemed terribly funny at the time.

My mother asked that I write something for her friend, to explain to her gently that this book was written by a quack, so I wrote to her that to our best understanding, most cancer was caused by mutations, and that electricity likely wouldn't have any effect at all on someone with cancer. I also wrote that anyone who telss you that they can cure all of anything, is likely trying to sell you a bill of goods. Over the years, I've brought this book up occassionally at parties, as an object of derision, and good humour. It seldom fails to get people to chuckle.

Fast forward several years. In 2002, my father was diagnosed with a particularly nasty transitional cell carcinoma. This is the cell that grows around the bladder, and this tumour had spread into his kidney and aorta. He had a twelve hour surgery in August of that year to remove his kidney, and the surrounding tissue. During his recovery I thought it would help my Mom to deal with all of the trauma if she had a book that explained simply what cancer was and what we could do about it, and headed down to my local Barnes & Noble to find something appropriate. They have a cancer section in their bookstore, and one of the most prominently displayed books of that time was none other than "The Cure for All Cancers". Needless to say, this time I found this book much less funny. I was enraged. Here is a book of complete quackery that is preying on desperate people during dark times. Since then, I've kept an eye out for it, and I've never failed to see this book in every bookstore I've set foot in since that day (and in fact, is listed as #8 of the cancer books on Amazon.com). In fact, a rough survey of the cancer section in most bookstores shows that at least half of the books in there are complete rubbish, and many of them promote cures that are nothing more than snake oil. I plan to do a more complete review of the crap found in these other books in the future.

In reading more about her, I found this quote from a review of her book at Amazon.com that sums it up better than I can:

"Understand that, for her to be correct, literally every physician and nurse you have every met would have to be part of a conspiracy to hide this truth. If a few zaps of electricity could cure cancer, then literally every drug company, every family doctor, every Nobel prize winner for the past half-century would need to be in on the lie. Or, if that seems a bit much, it could be the Hulda Clark is a quack. Ask yourself which seems more likely. "
Apparently these days, Hulda Clark is claiming that she can cure AIDS and various other diseases as well, and she is clearly a fairly successful scam-artist for so many bookstores to carry her books. I shake with anger when I think about all the unfortunates who have looked to her for hope. For more reading on this, or on others, check out Quackwatch.

Rest in peace, Dad (1933-2002).

Edit: Orac discusses Hulda Clark here. It's worth a read.



xDaveManx said...

My mother had a particularly nasty bout with intestinal cancer a couple of years ago. I have never seen this book in a store (of course, I never looked for it), but I am sure we would all be enraged that someone was preying on the sick in this way. Isn't there some kind of law that could be levied against this woman? Especially if she is trying to pass this off as genuine medical advice.

The Factician said...

That was actually my first reaction when I saw this book in the bookstore. I had something of a fit, and my fiancee (now wife) had to calm me down. There is enough legalese in the front of the book that covers her butt (i.e. this is not medical advice, consult with a medical professional) that prevents her from being sued. However, it is my understanding that she is the subject of lawsuits from people that have visited her at her "clinic". She now mostly operates out of Mexico to prevent the reach of the law. That said, she has a whole industry built up around her, selling her zapper and the whole bit. Google "Hulda Clark" and you'll see the broad array of useless crap that she sells.

It's very disheartening.