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No Alternative To Cancer—Interview with Dr. Paul Willis

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

November 21, 2016

Every year, thousands of Australians are suffering and dying prematurely because of alternative cancer treatments, according to a special investigation by Dr. Paul Willis, director of The Royal Institution of Australia.

The video (part of a series) is called No Alternative To Cancer, on the Australia Science TV site.

The report details the distressingly high number of cancer sufferers who choose to forego conventional treatment altogether in search of an alternative cure.

Kylie Sturgess spoke to Dr. Paul Willis of RiAus.


Dr. Paul Willis: I actually got into this story because my partner is a breast cancer researcher, and she lamented to me at the beginning of the year that she’d been along to one of her frequent surgical meetings, where they talk to surgeons so that they can get more material to be able to continue their research.

One of the surgeons at that meeting was almost in tears that a woman had presented with an inoperable breast cancer that she’d actually been diagnosed with eighteen months earlier, and she’d taken no conventional treatment for it. Instead, she’d been pursuing various alternative treatments that obviously had not worked. That caused me to go and have a look at how big the problem is.

The first hurdle I came to was that there are actually no records kept. If you have a diagnosis of cancer, that does have to be registered. If you go through a conventional treatment, they keep a record of what you have, what doses you have, how often you have them, how long you have them for, and they do follow up studies to find out how you’re faring six months, a year, or two, five, even ten years after you’ve had your treatment—so there’s a lot of record keeping if you go down the conventional route. If you don’t go down the conventional route, then you just drop out of the system.

Essentially, we don’t know what happens to about 4–5 percent of cancer diagnoses that do not go through with conventional treatments. What we were able to piece together is that most of them are probably taking alternative therapies. We could find no evidence that any of those alternative therapies actually work and cure or treat the cancer.

When we did a little bit of statistics around the fact that this year we will see 130,466 new diagnoses of cancer in Australia, when you start to do the statistics of 4 percent dropout rate and the failure of those particular dropout rates, you’re talking about something the scale of the national road toll. At least 5,000 people are suffering unnecessarily, because they’re not getting appropriate treatment for their cancer, and, of those, we can expect about a thousand a year are dying prematurely because they are not getting appropriate treatment.

Kylie Sturgess: Some people might be concerned about the differences between complementary and alternative medicine for cancer treatments. What is the difference? How do you know?

Willis: This was something that all of the clinicians and cancer researchers that I spoke to, they all wanted to make it quite clear that there is a difference between complimentary therapies, which are nonevidence-based therapies that are taken alongside conventional therapies. They actually encourage that. They recognize that the journey through chemotherapy or radiation therapy or surgery is horrendous. Anything you can do that makes you feel better, do it.

The only proviso they have in those cases of complimentary therapies is make sure your doctor knows what you’re doing, just in case there’s any conflict with the treatments that they’re giving you.

When you talk about alternative therapies, where someone forgoes conventional therapy in favor of a nonevidence-based approach to dealing with that cancer, that’s where the danger lies, because not only can we not find any alternative therapy that can actually do what they say it can do, but that delay in actually getting proper treatment for your cancer can mean the difference between life and death. If they get the cancer early and they can treat it conventionally early, your prognosis is much better than if it’s allowed to progress to higher and higher degrees.

Sturgess: I’ve seen warnings about alternative cancer treatments online. There’s been cases in the media such as Steve Jobs, who is mentioned in the video, where people have died from not being treated conventionally. Do you think it’s enough to change opinions or is the tidal wave of people promoting or believing in alternative medicine too large, do you think?

Willis: One of the surprising things for me when I was putting this story together is when I actually asked all of the clinicians and the surgeons and the researchers involved in this area, my final question in every interview was: “Okay. Here’s a magic wand. You can change one thing in this whole equation. What are you going to do?”

I expected them, to a person, to say “Okay. We need to ban X, Y, and Z therapies.” They all, to a person, said “We don’t want to see anything banned. What we want is for the alternative practitioners to come to us with their data. What are they doing? How successful is it? How many failures do they have?”

If they have that level of information, then, in future, they will be able to present to cancer patients an educated perspective of what lies in store for them if they do take these alternative therapies. At the moment, they can make outrageous claims and get away with it.

There are cases in the medical literature of people who have gone down the alternative route, and they have been promised cures or treatments from shark cartilage or apricot kernels—all sorts of bizarre things—to crystal healings, meditation—you name it—coffee enemas. These people in these papers show up back in the medical environment with a greatly advanced cancer which conventional therapy can’t do anything about.

If we just had that level of education as to how good or otherwise these alternative therapies are and if we had some data instead of anecdotes that we could present to cancer patients and say “"This is what will happen if you go down that path,” I think that is going to be the way forward.

Sturgess: I think that’s my concluding question: What now for stakeholders? It seems that now people have to start stepping up and seeing what we can do to find out what is really going on.

Willis: Yes, another thing, and I didn’t really go into it in the story, is that if you go through conventional therapies and they muck it up, you can actually sue them out of existence. The apparatus is all there. The regulations are there to ensure that what they do is efficacious, that they can do what they say, and that they explicitly explain, from the outset, what they want to do and what the outcome should be.

If you’re an alternative practitioner, you don’t have to do that. There is no regulation, so you can make all the promises in the world, and, when it all goes wrong, you just wash your hands of it. You can just turn it over to the conventional guys and say “Well, I’ve done my best. It’s over to you.” That lack of regulation, that lack of oversight as to the whole proposition of alternative cures for cancer, is probably at the heart of this whole issue.

Sturgess: Do you think this will be part of a series? Because I’ve seen online reactions to this video, and there was a lot of “Yes. Finally, someone’s pointing out the facts about what’s going on.” Do you think that this will be something that will continue to have legs, that we might see even more coverage?

Willis: I’d certainly like to be doing a follow up on this particular subject, maybe in a year’s time, and see what’s happened, but this particular story is a new line of programs on Australia’s Science Channel, which we’re calling “Special Investigations.” Because we are a media player, we are a media operator, but we have the distinction of an editorial policy that is based around the paradigms of science, not just normal reporting, it allows us to do stories in a different way from everybody else in the media.

If we take this, for example, this particular story, I have had some people come back to me, two people, in fact, saying “Where are the alternative practitioners in this? This story lacks balance.” I point out that, well, I actually did approach a couple of alternative practitioners who claimed that they could cure cancer and invited them to be part of the program, but, because of our editorial policy, they would have to come along with the data to back up their claims. At that point, they all balked and said they wouldn’t come on.

We are not bound by the principles of balance that you see in mainstream media, which operates by editorial policies that are framed around political and social discussions. We are of the Science Channel. We only present stuff that has an evidence base and is the consilience of the scientific research on any particular subject, and so, yes, this is the first of a series of Special Investigations. We’re working on one at the moment, which will be coming out later this year, looking at science denial, which is a phenomenon that’s writ large across society at the moment. Actually, I’m having quite a bit of fun with that!

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.