However, far from raising a red flag, doctors continue to recommend biopsy for prostate-cancer detection. To what effect? One large US military hospital reported that biopsy kills as many as one in every 100 patients (J Urol, 1989; 142: 86-8).
The news is even worse with breast biopsy, found to ‘displace’ malignant cancer cells in about a third of cases (Am J Roentgenol, 1999; 173: 1303-13). As a result, one in 15 women develops breast cancer from biopsy itself (Acta Radiol Suppl, 2001; 42: 1-22).
Pancreas, lung and kidney biopsies can all cause cancer ‘seeding’ (spread), too, with liver biopsy being the most hazardous, causing a 'significant risk' of cancer dissemination in one in every six cases (Dis Colon Rectum, 2003; 46: 454-8).
Nevertheless, doctors persist in recommending screening and biopsies, seemingly mindless to the medical principle to 'first do no harm'.
Cutting out cancer causes cancer
Cancer treatment still relies on the three-pronged approach of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy - dubbed ‘cut, burn and poison’ by its critics.
Critics tend to be least hostile to surgery because removing cancer is believed to reduce the ‘tumour burden’ on the body. But is it always good news?
Breast-cancer surgeon Michael Baum says surgery isn’t always benign, pointing to statistics showing that surgery actually tends to increase the risk of cancer relapse or death. In an article entitled 'Does surgery disseminate or accelerate cancer?' that shocked his colleagues, he argued that surgery could stimulate the formation of metastases (secondary cancers) elsewhere in the body (Lancet, 1996; 347: 260).
Baum is influenced by the theories of Harvard researcher Dr Judah Folkman, who showed that cancers spread by forming new blood vessels (angiogenesis). This occurs whenever flesh is injured, and may be a trigger for cancer growth and spread. 'The newly formed blood vessels [after an incision into cancerous tissue] bring the blood and oxygen that encourage tumour growth,' says Baum. 'They also provide the means for cancer cells to travel to distant organs and form new tumours.'
A similar process occurs with biopsy, says Baum, which would explain why cancer seeding is so common. 'Biopsy could be considered as an angiogenic switch,' he says. 'You take a latent cancer that might never harm a patient, biopsy it, turn on the angiogenic switch, and it ceases to be latent - it becomes an aggressive disease.'
Burning cancer causes more of it
The second line of treatment is radiation and here, again, experience over the last 30 years is showing that it can be self-defeating. The treatment involves bombarding the body with rays that, in high doses, are lethal to all living cells - and known to cause cancer at any dose. Its rationale is to target only cancer cells, but that’s an often forlorn hope. It’s now known that if breast-cancer patients are treated with radiation, over 60 per cent of them will eventually contract lung cancer (Med Oncol, 1994; 11: 121-5).
In some women, radiotherapy may actually cause more immediate cancers, in particular, rare aggressive ‘angiosarcomas’, which are almost always fatal (J Am Acad Dermatol, 2003; 49: 532-8). Others have even fallen victim to radiation-induced breast cancer (Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys, 1995; 31: 405-10).
Small wonder that a recent review involving over 20,000 breast-cancer patients found that, after just two years, radiotherapy had killed 21 per cent more women than it cured (Lancet, 2000; 355: 1757-70).