A few days ago I corrected a Telegraph article about homeopathy, as part of Homeopathy Awareness Week. (That is of course not the official ‘week’ website but it is better.) Today, as the week ends (after eight days for some reason), I will apply much the same corrections to another homeopathy article, this time courtesy of Cancer Research UK, whose Cancer Help website carries a page of what I will generously term “information” about homeopathy. It is split into the following sections:
- What homeopathy is
- Why people with cancer use homeopathy
Strangely, the word “ignorant” does not appear in this section. It does say “Some people choose homeopathy because it offers a completely different type of treatment compared to conventional medicine.” Which is true, but it’s a bit like saying “some people choose spaghetti because it offers a completely different type of support compared to a conventional bungee cord”.
- Evidence on using homeopathy in cancer treatment
- What homeopathy involves
- Side effects
- Who shouldn’t use homeopathy
Ooh, I know! Is it “anyone who wants to get better or has a finite supply of money”?
- What homeopathy costs
- Finding a homeopath
- Homeopathic hospitals in the UK
- Homeopathy organisations
For context, this page sits in their “complementary and alternative therapies” section, (surely by definition all therapies are either complementary or an alternative?) which lists a huge number of options including the harmless, the spiritual and the quackerific. They’re all split into the same sections as the homeopathy page. They’re mostly good stuff:
- There is no evidence to suggest that acupuncture helps in any way with treating, preventing or curing cancer. Both the World Health Organisation and the Cochrane Library have published reviews on chemotherapy related sickness, concluding that acupuncture can help.
- There is no scientific evidence to prove that Aloe vera can help treat, prevent or cure cancer in people in any way.
- There is no scientific evidence to prove that aromatherapy can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer.
- Many people say these therapies help them to cope better with cancer and its treatment. But there are treatments which are part of ayurvedic medicine such as special diets and herbal remedies that we don’t know enough about to support their use. These treatments could be harmful to your health or interfere with your conventional treatment.
- Some people have claimed that black cohosh may reduce your risk of getting breast cancer or prostate cancer. There is not enough evidence for this at the moment.
And so on, all the way down to
- There is no scientific evidence to prove that yoga can cure or prevent any type of cancer. But there are some studies to suggest that it might help people with cancer sleep better and cope with anxiety.
Yeah, it’s tiring is yoga.
I also like that they discuss the evidence in an adult way, rather than simply saying “this works; this doesn’t work”. The point is, though, that I can’t help think that the following text lends far too much weight to the insane fringe view that there is even the slightest possibility that homeopathic ‘medicine’ could cure cancer:
There are over 100 published clinical trials looking at how well homeopathy works in treating various illnesses and symptoms. None of these trials provide us with any scientific evidence to prove that homeopathy can cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer. Many individuals say that homeopathy has helped their symptoms. And some small trials have shown that homeopathy can have a positive effect. Two studies suggest that homeopathy may help women with breast cancer to cope with menopause symptoms. But these are small clinical trials and they don’t provide enough evidence to show if homeopathy really works, or how.
Remind me again why I should give you money, Cancer Research UK? This is sort of implying you’ll waste it.
We don’t really know whether the effects of homeopathy truly come from the homeopathic medicine or if they are simply a placebo effect.
Using homeopathic medicine is generally safe. Some homeopaths warn people that their symptoms could get slightly worse, before they settle down and improve.
Sort of like illnesses do on their own, then..?
But this does not happen very often. A Swiss meta-analysis of homeopathy trials in 2006 found homeopathy applied appropriately by a trained homeopath to be safe and with few side effects.
Yes, because it’s totally inert!
If you are having treatment for cancer it is important that you let your specialist doctors know if you are planning to use homeopathic medicine.
It’s a difficult thing to do, of course, because it’s important to say “look, here is the evidence, do you still think water is magic medicine?” rather than “it just doesn’t work, okay?” because it’s the only way any real progress will be made against the nonsense we’re all surrounded by. But equally, there really is no good evidence at all on the homeopaths’ side, so representing the evidence in a truly balanced way looks a lot like saying “it just doesn’t work”.
Ultimately, though, it’s the links sections at the bottom that annoy me. They link, for example, to the CORH, saying “look on their website for a list of the organisations who are members,” but the CORH are happy to link uncritically to the almost totally mental Society of Homeopaths, whose record on such things is pretty dismal (and it’s hard to over-state their satisfaction), and to the Faculty of Homeopathy, whose president I recently caught on television endorsing the Faculty while claiming to be an ordinary member. She said:
If people have a serious medical condition I would strongly advise them to approach [the Faculty of Homeopathy].
Homeopaths have a record of giving bad advice, mostly by recommending people avoid real medicine (or as above failing to recommend they seek it out), and I don’t think it’s appropriate for a cancer charity, or indeed anyone else, to endorse their organisations in this way without a large disclaimer saying “warning: many homeopaths are a bit mental and think their water is magical. If they tell you they can cure cancer or AIDS or that they can basically do anything at all apart perhaps from making you feel vaguely better, leave and report them to their governing body and Trading Standards”.
For all I know practitioners of the other alternative therapies are no better, but I’m aware of a lot more evil done in the name of homeopathy than in the name of acupuncture or yoga. Generally, homeopathy and ‘herbalism’ are the pseudosciences most likely, in my experience, to have delusions of efficacy beyond palliative care, and that makes them dangerous.
Just because the pill is harmless doesn’t change that.