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Current Affairs Science

Balancing act

What would you do if someone claimed that, because of “geopathic stress”, moving your bed could be the key to avoiding cancer? Well, if you’re the Irish Independent, you give that someone the most prominent picture and article space in a section about cancer prevention and treatment, with the bold headline “The truth about avoiding cancer”.

The man in the picture holding the magical pieces of wire is Brendan Murphy, and the article is little more than an advertising piece for his company, Positive Energy. Though the piece starts promisingly by pointing out that geopathic stress is “an area that is still open to debate”, sadly, it fails to deliver that debate. Instead, the reader is treated to a number of claims with a dearth of supporting evidence.

  • By ‘dousing’ (an ancient practice of using two wires to find underground waterways) Brendan can identify where water runs under a house and has found a strong correlation between that and illness.
  • If you’re constantly waking tired and unrefreshed it could be a sign that you’re sleeping over geopathic stress.
  • There’s a growing interest in how geopathic stress or ‘sick building syndrome’ affects health, with planners in several countries now considering geopathic stress lines when building houses. 
  • On the basis that electromagnetic waves affect the body’s ability to restore itself during sleep, Brendan advises also keeping mobile phones and electricity boxes an arm’s length from the bed – as well as keeping WiFI switched off at night.

The piece neither provides, nor suggests where you might find evidence to support the claims about Murphy’s dousing abilities (or anybody’s ability to accurately douse), or why electricity boxes and wifi might prevent your body from “restoring itself”, and if you found yourself wondering what planners are interested in geopathic stress lines, and how they could possible hope to avoid them all if they are as prevalent as claimed, you are not alone. A quick search through any academic database will cure what ails you – geopathic stress turning up only in low quality journals and those that focus on complementary and alternative therapies. Whatever strong correlations Murphy claims to have found between illnesses and these imaginary stress lines, it certainly hasn’t been documented in any research papers.

Continuing to largely ignore the seemingly fictional nature of the piece, the author concludes that there has been “little investigation into the area, but if something as small as changing where you sleep, or moving your phone, might impact on your health it could be worth thinking about.” A statement of equal legitimacy might be “there has been little investigation into the area of alien-induced head colds, but if something as small as wearing these protective alien UFO blocking nose plugs might impact on your health, it could be worth thinking about”.

Further down the page, nestled between largely sensible articles from an Irish Cancer Society representative and a dietician, Dr. Aileen O’Kane, now an Ayurvedic practitioner tells us that “if the digestive system is overtaxed the immune system is compromised and can’t gobble up the cancer cells that the body is always producing, the way it normally would”, and in a nod to the thoroughly debunked “alkaline diet” craze, that “Many people who have cancer have excess acid in the body.” The conclusion, highlighted for you in a section of its own, is to “keep acidic foods to a minimum”. O’Kane believes that any illness, including cancer, is the body’s warning sign that our lives are out of balance.

Our lives aren’t the only things suffering from a lack of balance – increasingly, in the name of journalistic balance, legitimate and accurate information is overshadowed by misleading quotes and scaremongering by those brought in to “balance” the piece. It’s one thing to include dissenting opinions when discussing the latest trend in fashionable shoes, or whether some movie lives up to the hype, but medical science isn’t about which opinion is more popular or compelling, it’s about evidence.

These articles might pay lip service to the lack of evidence by saying things like “still up for debate” or “Dr. Someone  believes that”, but placing these articles next to pieces by legitimate medical professionals lends them a degree of credibility which they often don’t deserve. When articles like these are published, the trust that is placed in well-respected and nationally read newspapers such as The Irish Independent is extended to the people who make claims about alternative therapies. They are claims that shouldn’t be trusted, claims for which they should have to provide evidence – but the mere fact of publication often means they don’t have to.

Every time an author discusses serious medical conditions like cancer, and decides that appearing to be “neutral” is more important than reporting accurately, they perpetuate the idea that alternative and unproven therapies are as legitimate as proven ones, and that when it comes to treating these conditions, everyone’s opinion is equal, even if those opinions come with no pertinent training, no supporting evidence, or an eye-watering price tag. Encouraging people to “think about” these alleged cancer causes and prevention methods essentially encourages baseless worry, reaching down to a fear of terminal illness and death that we all possess, and as no effort is made to draw a distinction between the sensible advice (eat a healthy, varied diet) and the more ridiculous advice (magical invisible lines under your bed), the overall impression one is left with is that each of these “truths” about cancer prevention are equally valid. Alternative therapies are alternative because they have either not been proved to work, or have been proven not to work, and including these therapies, simply so that you can call your piece balanced is irresponsible to the point of dangerous – a lesson which The Independent sorely needs to learn.

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Current Affairs

“Don’t forget it was the chemo that cured you”

The world of alternative cancer treatments is vast and confusing, and I can understand why anyone diagnosed with cancer would want to give themselves the best fighting chance possible. Eating right, getting exercise and rest, and looking after your mental health can all play an important part in cancer recovery, but often, people end up attributing a miracle cure to a particular lifestyle change, diet change, or alternative therapy, rather than the conventional treatment that they also underwent. When that’s just a personal belief, that’s one thing, but when someone starts to market this belief, wrapped up in some pseudo-science, then they begin to step tentatively towards quackery.

Recently, I came across a leaflet advertising a seminar by Bernadette Bohan, who was going to talk about the role of nutrition in the treatment and prevention of cancer. I’ll admit to being immediately dubious, as I saw no qualifications mentioned on the leaflet, so decided to investigate a little. What I found was disappointing. Bohan has had cancer twice, and each time has undergone conventional chemotherapy. Upon her second diagnosis, she embarked upon a number of lifestyle and diet changes which she now attributes her good health to, and while, at first glance, these changes appear to be sound, a deeper analysis shows them to be based on flawed information. Undeniably, good nutrition is important, but Bohan is not a nutritionist, and goes further than just recommending good nutrition.

Primarily, Bohan seems to be an advocate of “juicing” – ingesting large quantities of juiced fruits and vegetables throughout the day. While a healthy diet will include portions of fruit and vegetables, proponents of juicing argue that drinking these as a juice is more beneficial than simply eating them. The juicing process, they say, “pre-digests” the food, making it easier to absorb the nutrients, and the inclusion of so much juice helps to heal all that ails you (reduces your risk of cancer, boosts your immune system, helps you remove toxins, aids digestion, helps you lose weight, helps manage heart conditions, etc.). Allegedly, a break from processing the fibre contained in whole fruits and vegetables will also prevent cancers. However, as a Mayo Clinic nutritionist points out, there is no sound scientific evidence that juicing does any of these things, or that the fruits and vegetables are more beneficial to us in juice form. At best, juicing may simply be a way to include less palatable vegetables in our diet, but it is certainly not a cure-all, and there is currently no evidence to suggest that drinking lots of apple juice is any better for you than simply eating a lot of apples.

Juicing isn’t really the biggest problem here – Bohan doesn’t advocate ridiculous amounts of juice (a la Gerson Therapy) – it’s just a gateway to the rest of the information on the site, for which the evidence dwindles accordingly. We are told that wheatgrass juice is a super-food, and that its high quantities of vitamin B17 (a substance that is thought to kill cancer cells), and its ability to suppress bacterial growths and eliminate stored toxins with its liver purifying chlorophyll, make it justifiably popular. Well, there’s just so much wrong with all of that that it’s hard to know where to start. Vitamin B17 has been sold, in the form of Laetrile, as an alternative cancer cure that is neither a vitamin, nor a cure. In fact, studies have found it to be potentially toxic in larger quantities, possibly resulting in cyanide poisoning. Oh, and it’s completely ineffective in the treatment of cancer too. This isn’t just a slip – on another page, a piece on “Power Foods” tells us about the wonders of B17, this time in great detail.

Chlorophyll is something that many will have studied in school, as that important chemical which plants use to get energy from light. And humans use it for… well, nothing in particular really. Chlorophyll is used by plants in the process of photosynthesis, to fuel the conversion of carbon dioxide into compounds the plant can use (e.g. sugars). As we don’t photosynthesise, it’s not especially important to us, and indeed, doesn’t function in the same way inside us. No amount of chlorophyll will help you detoxify or oxygenate things – we simply cannot use it that way. At best, we might gain some scant nutritional value from it as it passes through our dark, non-carbon dioxide filled, digestive systems.

Bohan’s advice doesn’t stop there however; she also takes care to tell us that it’s not just what we’re putting in our bodies, but what we’re putting on our bodies. Antiperspirants, we’re told, contain aluminium, which accumulates in our brain, and “the link with Alzheimer’s disease and aluminium compounds has been scientifically proven.” This is nonsense. There is, at best, circumstantial evidence to link aluminium and Alzheimer’s Disease, and overwhelmingly, medical and scientific professionals agree that no causal link has been demonstrated between the two. There is not enough evidence to make a strong recommendation to remove aluminium from your life, or to switch to a different antiperspirants (or stop using one altogether), and the link between aluminium and Alzheimer’s is so tenuous that to state that it has been “scientifically proven” is an outright lie. On this point, I actually complained to the ASAI, and was told that I was told that, because it was an editorial, they are “not in a position to pursue [my] complaint.” In which case, any advertiser may, clearly, write whatever they please on their website, as long as it’s an editorial, so it’s open season folks!

Finally, we come to her seminars, which are, after all, the reason I came across Bohan in the first place. For €500-€650, you can attend a three day wellness seminar with Bohan herself, featuring numerous workshops, talks, juices, and other fun activities. A little research pulls up some timetables for previous and upcoming seminars, in which Bohan will discuss her organic, alkaline diet, and be joined by Jackie O’Mahony, to discuss healing visualisations and cell healing. Without heading off on a tangent to discuss alkaline diets (unproven) and cell healing (which actually could be any one of a number of pseudo-scientific nonsense techniques), it’s clear that there’s a heavy emphasis on the alternative treatment options at these seminars, and based on her site, this emphasis extends throughout her philosophy.

While I’m not opposed to eating healthily, and making positive lifestyle changes to improve your chances of beating cancer, I’m also not naive enough to think that juicing or dieting or any of it will, alone, kill cancer. Throughout Bohan’s site, she reinforces the importance of her new diet, but it’s rarely mentioned that what did the curing was the chemotherapy. It’s easy to become wrapped up in the idea that something as palatable as fruit juices and supplements will help you to avoid the difficulties and side effects associated with chemotherapy, but this woman didn’t cure herself using fruit juice. I don’t believe her intent is malicious, but rather, that she has been misinformed. By seeking out information on the internet, and from alternative medicine sources, she has put together a programme that is so jam-packed with disproved and debunked information that it’s hard to see where one piece ends and another begins. With her own cancer cured, and her book setting her up as a mother who found her own way to healing through an alternative prescription, it’s easy to see how people would be taken in. Her book is selling well, she has appeared on tv, and she’s becoming more prominent in the field of alternative therapy. It is not, I think, such a big step from “juices helped to cure me” to “juices cured me”, and I fear that this is where Bohan is rapidly headed.

When Bohan told her oncologist about her life changes, he replied “Don’t forget it was the chemo that cured you“, and I think it’s such an important statement. Of all the alternative cancer cures that have been advertised, not a one has been scientifically proven to work. I know what the effects of chemo are because I watched my father go through chemotherapy. I shaved his head when he lost his hair, I watched him wake up looking positively exhausted and pale, and I saw the effect it had, not just on his body, but on his mind. I know that the side effects are undeniably difficult, but the fact of the matter is that chemotherapy, and not Laetrile or wheatgrass or juices or any other alternative treatment, cures cancer. Chemotherapy demonstrably and repeatedly cures cancers, and as the technology has developed, it cures more cancers, more effectively, than ever before. I can imagine wanting to forget the hair loss, the nausea, the tiredness, but forgetting the cure? Not for me.