Complementary and alternative medicine in cancer - how to find credible websites

To wrap up this mini-series on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapies in cancer, a helpful place to end is showing you how I “separate the wheat from the chaff” (so to speak) when reading about this therapy or that treatment.

In Scotland, there used to be a comedy sketch show called “Chewin’ the Fat” (if you’ve never watched it, it’s worth a Google - there are some classic skits, albeit a bit old now). Anyway, one of the main characters (played by Karen Dunbar) was an old woman who could “sniff out” when someone was lying to her.

As a qualified scientist, with years of experience in the field of cancer research specifically, I’ve developed a bit of a nose for “sh*te” science, pseudoscience and downright utter nonsense (although I do still like to read about some seemingly weird phenomenon that have been widely debunked by the scientific community, just with a critical eye, you know?!).

When it comes to cancer treatments, there is naturally an appetite to find a cure, but with that comes dangerous media hype and reports of individual case studies, which can lead unsuspecting individuals on an expensive wild goose chase. 

So how do you know which sources to trust, and when is it ok to ignore the science?

Who DO you trust?

Well, it’s probably easier to start with who NOT to trust.

Be wary of anyone who claims they have a “cure”. Be especially alert to the use of hyperbole (e.g. “miracle”, “wonder-drug”, “magical remedy”, etc.). I know these days it’s more common to use hyperbole in our everyday language (e.g. “that’s incredible”...when it’s actually just great), but when it comes to describing the effects or potency of a treatment, I’d urge you to dig a little deeper. 

How to assess the results of any reported studies

When it comes to evaluating the published research, the first step is to ask yourself a few questions about it. For example, what kinds of results have been observed? Are they significant? How do you know? (i.e. did they do sufficient statistical analyses?)

What kind of study was performed? Was it a case study or a randomized controlled trial? How many people were involved? (We call this “the n number”, and an n of 1 is called anecdotal evidence - see my point above about statistical analyses). Was the study properly controlled for? 

Who funded the study? This is a good one to watch out for. Sometimes, all the studies on a particular therapy are conducted by the same person, or people working for that person. Without going into too much (dull!) detail, in the land of scientific publications the person whose name comes last on the paper (the “corresponding author”) is usually the person who led the study. The first person named on the paper is usually the researcher who carried out the work, but they didn’t necessarily come up with the idea. 

So if you’re at all in doubt about the evidence behind a therapy, look at ALL the papers available - and then look at the authors lists. Is there one name that features on all of them? Now, bear in mind this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad - after all, every treatment and drug and therapy for all manner of diseases started with zero...then one publication...then a handful...but if there’s been nothing for 10 years and the literature is a bit sparse, then as my Mum would say, “caw canny” (go carefully).

What about the science?

I guess this is a bit harder to do if you’ve not got a scientific background, but a good deal of this comes down to common sense.

Do you remember that L’Oreal advert for hairspray with Jennifer Aniston where she said, “Now here comes the science…” and proceeded to talk about the “flexy-bendy things” that kept her hair in place? It was clearly a send-up of the typical adverts of the time designed to wow the public with the science, but my point is this: if a website claiming to have a cure for cancer can’t describe the mechanism of action without using dubious language like this, then steer clear!

Evaluating websites

In the age of IOT (the Internet of Things), it’s so easy to build a website - for not very much money - and put anything you want on it. If I really wanted to, I could write about unicorns and rainbows and flying to the moon, and no one would know (or care!) if I was being serious or not. 

And with tools like SquareSpace and WordPress, it’s also quite easy to make very flash-looking websites that LOOK like the real deal, and again, people can write whatever they want. They can make up all sorts of “sh*te” about how their product has worked wonders for “Mrs Jones from Yorkshire”, or how they got 15 million degrees from the University of Makeitupeztan…you get my point... 

Again, ask yourself some key questions: who runs and pays for the website? Does it represent an organization that’s well known and respected? What’s the purpose of the site - just promoting and selling their products, or are they also offering free information? And where does that information come from?

Who CAN you trust?

The most obvious sites that are trustworthy are those of the government-funded agencies - at the end of the day, without getting too political here, our world governments are (supposed to be) acting in the best interests of the public. 

Here’s my top trusted sources for information on evidence-based cancer therapies:

The USA’s National Institute of Health (NIH)-funded website, which has a wealth of information on most CAM therapies, including links to the evidence base. They even have an excellent booklet for patients dedicated to this very topic.

Cancer Research UK

The UK’s largest cancer charity, which has a dedicated team of researchers contributing to their content.

The World Cancer Research Fund

The leading global authority on the links between diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer.

Beyond Conventional Cancer Therapies

An independent, not-for-profit organisation that has a small team of researchers specifically looking at exploring integrative therapies for cancer.

Closing thoughts

If you’d like to learn more about CAM therapies for cancer, as well as a range of other aspects of cancer - about what it is, its causes and preventative measures, the emotional impact it has on those living with it, and how you can use this knowledge to help support your patients and clients through the experience, then why not join me in my FREE online training workshop where you’ll discover how to transform your ability to deliver exceptional cancer care to make a bigger impact in this world, and learn how to stop making the classic mistakes that many cancer professionals inadvertently make. In this one-hour workshop, I’m going to talk about the three pillars of exceptional cancer care, with some simple strategies for maximizing patient engagement that you can begin to implement straight away. Reserve your seat here.

Next week, we’re beginning a new mini-series of interviews with four individuals whose lives have been touched by cancer, who have turned their pain into passion and purpose, and dedicated their lives to helping others find a way through. 

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