Radiotherapy for lung cancer may also be totally counterproductive. In a major survey of such patients, at two years, their risk of death was 21 per cent higher than those not receiving radiation (Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2003; 1: CD002142).
Then there are the side-effects. The most common of these are fatigue, nausea and vomiting. But there’s also physical damage, for example, to bone marrow, causing osteoporosis and joint problems. Breast radiotherapy is particularly hazardous. The UK Radiotherapy Action Group Exposure (RAGE) was set up by women who had suffered catastrophic arm injuries, excruciating pain and repeated corrective surgery as a direct result of radiotherapy.
Poisoning cancer doesn’t work
The third major anti-cancer weapon is chemotherapy - the use of toxic chemicals that kill all dividing cells, normal as well as cancerous - which hopes to destroy the cancer before it kills the patient. Many chemo drugs used today are chemical cousins of mustard gas and so toxic that hospital staff use protection while administering these agents to patients.
Most people are aware of the vicious side-effects of chemo, but what doctors often don’t tell patients is that there is little evidence that such a blunderbuss delivery prolongs life. When American Tom Nesi, who worked for drugs giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, persuaded his wife to use his company’s latest chemo drug for her cancer, after just two weeks of it, she pleaded, 'No more, please' (The New York Times, 5 June 2003).
Indeed, many patients look upon chemo as a trial by ordeal - a penance of such suffering that it will miraculously absolve them of their sinful cancer.
Doctors themselves won’t undergo it. A Canadian survey of doctors revealed that the vast majority would refuse chemotherapy as it was believed to be unacceptably toxic and largely ineffective (Br J Cancer, 1986; 54: 661-7).
Indeed, the plain truth of the matter is, on looking at the evidence, in many cases, chemotherapy doesn’t work at all (see box, p 4). A huge breast-cancer survey concluded that ‘adjuvant therapy’ (chemo and radiation) did not increase overall cancer survival (JAMA, 1991; 265: 391-5).
The knee-jerk response of cancer doctors to the fact that chemo doesn’t work appears to be not to abandon it, but to up the dosage. One celebrity example was Linda McCartney, who bravely underwent high-dose chemotherapy, but ultimately succumbed - to either the cancer or the chemo. A report published around the time of her death showed that high-dose chemo kills 8 per cent of patients while bringing little benefit (Lancet, 1999; 353: 1633).
But this has been known for years. In 1992, German cancer expert Dr Ulrich Abel did a comprehensive analysis of all clinical data on chemotherapy in cases of advanced cancer. 'There is no direct evidence that chemotherapy prolongs survival in patients with advanced carcinoma,' he concluded, attacking the prevailing beliefs of his colleagues. 'Many oncologists take it for granted that response to therapy prolongs survival, an opinion which is based on a fallacy and which is not supported by clinical studies' (Biomed Pharmacother, 1992; 46: 439-52).
As Abel implies, the term ‘response’ has been used by cancer specialists to persuade patients of the benefits of chemotherapy, omitting to mention that a response rarely translates into a significant improvement in survival time or quality of life for the patient. A peculiarly candid admission of this came in 1978 from a leading US specialist in colon cancer, Dr Charles Moertel, at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. 'Even when administered in most ideal regimens,' he wrote, summarising the value of 5-FU (5-fluorouracil), the major chemotherapy drug for colon cancer, '5-FU will produce objective response in only about 15 to 20 per cent of treated patients. These responses are usually only partial and very transient. This minor gain for a small minority of patients is probably more than counterbalanced by the deleterious influence of toxicity for other patients and by the cost and inconvenience experienced by all patients.'