Are chemotherapy side effects such as chemo brain and immune suppression all worth it? Some in the mainstream media don’t want you to decide for yourself. 

On January 7, writer, Kelsey Osgood posted her article, “Chemotherapy Truthers are the New Anti-Vaxxers” on Medium. According to Osgood, “cancer truthers … claim chemotherapy is ineffective, that it weakens the immune system, and even that it causes cancer.”

Are these really just claims, or are chemotherapy side effects, including chemo brain, being ignored? 

Emotions understandably run high around the subject of cancer, as the disease has touched all of our lives in some way. Every patient and cancer case is different, so it is up to the individual to decide their course of treatment. An informed choice requires access to all the information – both the pros and cons of each possible path. 

Are Chemotherapy Side Effects Worth it?

Despite the Medium article describing it as a “claim,” chemotherapy has an overall dismal track record in the research. In 2004, a literature review examined data from the USA and Australia to see how effective it really was. Researchers looked at the efficacy of chemotherapy by itself on 22 different cancers. They concluded that just over two percent of cancer patients who survived to five years did so because of chemotherapy. This did not include leukemia, where the treatment is much more effective.

This outcome raises questions about chemotherapy’s efficacy as a cancer treatment. The highest success rates in this study for Americans were 40.3 percent for treating Hodgkin’s disease. And 37.7 percent for treating testicular cancer. 

What Is Chemo Brain?

Most medical professionals who advise chemotherapy argue that the benefits outweigh the side effects. The 2004 study certainly calls this into question. In addition, some of the scariest side effects are not well known. We know about such side effects as nausea, hair loss, and a weakened immune system, but what about issues that stick around for longer?

One of the most distressing is commonly called chemo brain, where neurological functions such as cognition are impaired. Higher doses of chemo, in particular, can lead to seizures, infarction (tissue death from poor blood supply), and even coma. Research estimates that 18 percent of women treated with chemotherapy for breast cancer suffer from chemo brain. If high doses are used, the rate climbs to 30 percent. The study reporting this result defined the dose as including 100mg of cyclophosphamide daily per 14-day cycle, per square meter of the body surface. Forty milligrams of methotrexate and 600mg of 5-fluorouracil (per square meter) were given intravenously on days one and eight.

Laboratory research shows that this isn’t just all in patients’ heads, as chemotherapy drugs including 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) are toxic to brain cells. Doses used in clinical practice damage both mature cells and still-dividing neural stem cells. In fact, amounts that halved the number of viable oligodendrocytes (a type of brain cell) barely touched human breast and ovarian cancer cells. Other drugs that are associated with chemo brain include methotrexate and cisplatin. 

Censorship Beyond Buzz Words

The Medium’s hit piece not only uses insults like “truther” or “anti-vaxxer,” but mocks its targets in other ways. The interview with author Shunsuke Funase in Ty Bollinger’s series Eastern Medicine: A Journey Through Asia is described as “outrageous” for his “vaguely medical-looking white coat,” broken English, and untranslated book. He is quoted as saying, “It’s only just a poison … so the poison will kill the patient. To cure, no. To kill,” when discussing chemotherapy. Taken out of context, Osgood makes it sound as if Shu Funase is saying that the drugs’ purpose is to kill, instead of making the point about its downplayed potential for fatal side effects. 

Osgood uses several media manipulation tactics throughout the piece. Tying  “cancer truthers” to the “anti-vaxxer” label, which already carries negative baggage, is both guilt by association and character assassination. Those who question chemotherapy or vaccines are painted as totally against conventional medicine, leaving no room for a discussion of the actual science. This is the straw man argument, where the point of the opposing side is misrepresented. In this case, anyone questioning the efficacy of chemotherapy is dismissed as being “anti-science.”

Bollinger’s Response

In response to the article, Ty Bollinger, on his blog, The Truth About Cancer states that they are making public the science that is there. Additionally, when describing Bollinger’s series and blog, Osgood writes off all information and products as “unproven” without examining their references or independent research. Additionally, no patient or health professional who has had success with integrative or alternative approaches is given a fair hearing. 

Even governments try to censor the discussion of cancer. The United Kingdom’s 1939 Cancer Act is one example, which prohibits anyone but medical authorities from selling or publicly discussing cancer treatments. Much later in 2018, the Irish government published the Treatment of Cancer Advertisements Bill, which aims to outlaw the suggestion that there are alternatives to conventional cancer treatment.

The Irish Times article covering the story and interviewees described patients as “vulnerable,” and all alternatives as “unproven” or “disproven,” as if people aren’t intelligent enough to look at the research and decide for themselves. There is no attempt to provide balance with information on why people with cancer seek alternatives or which treatments are approved in other countries. 

Mainstream Alternatives For Cancer

Despite the move to ban discussion of alternatives, new treatments for cancer that do not follow the traditional “cut, poison, burn” approach are even appearing in mainstream, FDA-approved medicine. One solution recently approved for lung and kidney tumors is IceCure’s cryoablation techniques. Here, liquid nitrogen is injected to freeze and destroy cancer or benign growths. The results? All patients with early-stage lung cancer survived to three years (compared to 78 percent with radiation), while another trial showed a 93 percent success rate in small kidney cancers. 

Another treatment growing in popularity is proton beam therapy (PBT), where radiation is tightly focused, so high doses can be used with very few side effects. Some types of cancer also have better survival rates with PBT. Chordoma has a 10-year survival rate of 60 percent with PBT, compared to 40 percent with surgery. In liver cancer, PBT can save more lives by preventing the dangerous complication of blood clotting. 

New research is even suggesting that some flu vaccines could help to shrink or freeze the growth of tumors. Inactivated flu shots increased the number of immune cells inside tumors and boosted the response against them. When combined with already-established immunotherapy drugs, the effect was stronger. 

Additionally, alternative treatment can be used in conjunction with traditional approaches. For example, a study of 240 people comparing chemotherapy with or without aloe extract found higher success with the combination. Thirty-four percent of patients using aloe had either a complete or partial response, compared to 19 percent on chemotherapy alone. 

Cancer Prevention: The Basics

One point nearly everyone agrees on is that cancer prevention is the best course of action. While there are many potential causes of cancer, the biggest single one is cigarette smoking. Around 30 percent of cancer deaths are the result of smoking. Natural aids to help you quit smoking include acupuncture, mindfulness techniques, black pepper, and the herb rhodiola.

You may also want to speed the restoration of healthy cellular function after quitting smoking or detoxing from environmental pollutants. Useful supplements can include the vitamin B3 derivative NAD, molecular hydrogen, coenzyme Q10, and all-round superfood blends

A healthy diet may also go a long way in preventing cancers. A case-control study found that a predominately “healthy” diet was linked to a 75 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer. Healthy foods were defined as vegetables, fruit, legumes, organ meats and fish; unhealthy food included red and processed meat, sugar and refined grains. The CDC estimates that only ten percent of adults meet the recommended daily intake of fruit (one and a half to two cups) and vegetables (two to three cups). 

Choosing to include chemotherapy in cancer treatment regimes is an individual decision. It must take personal factors, the type of cancer, and other factors into account and allow the discussion of alternatives, adjunctive therapies, and cancer prevention. Dismissing concerns over efficacy and side effects does not foster an open conversation, or pave the way for innovation.

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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