There's no such thing as a miracle cure - Ask for Evidence

Sadly, there are still many conditions that medicine can treat only very imperfectly. For example, low back pain, and some forms of cancer cannot be cured at the moment. A diagnosis of cancer is pretty terrifying (I’ve had one). You are desperate and you’ll try anything. John Diamond, while dying of cancer, wrote “it is then that the ‘alternative’ or ‘complementary’ vultures start circling. This is their moment. This is where they come into their own, for there’s money in hope: the more desperate the hope, the richer the pickings”.

Obviously you should, Ask for Evidence:  the problem is that quacks are good at using sciencey-sounding words and misrepresenting evidence.  It’s easy to be fooled if you haven’t got much experience of assessing evidence.  If you Google “cancer cures” most of what you find will be untrue. But there is also much good information.  Try Googling “pancreatic cancer quack”, rather than “pancreatic cancer”. Go for sites that are generally reliable, like NHS Choices, or Cancer Research UK.  Find some blogs which are critical of claims.  If in doubt about the evidence, ask the people who write these sites.  Don’t be impressed by long lists of initials after people’s names, and don’t rely on official regulators.  Above all, beware of any site that tries to sell you something, or to refer you to expensive private treatments. Treatments that actually work (if there are any) are available on the NHS.

Ben Goldacre said, memorably, that alternative medicine can be regarded as a voluntary tax on the gullible. That’s true as long as you are one of the ‘worried well’. If you have a serious condition that’s potentially curable by real medicine, then alternative medicine might better be described as culpable homicide. Claims to cure cancer are illegal but are rife on the web. Claims to prevent or cure malaria, cholera, meningitis etc. with pills that contain no medicine (i.e. homeopathy) are common, but could cost you your life.

Some quacks may be genuinely deluded. But deluded or not, their main effect is to empty your wallet. In the process they may also make your last days a misery, by giving you coffee enemas and making you live on a vegan diet, no wheat, sugar or alcohol, and to live on five glasses of raw juice and two jars of sprouts a day.

David Colquhoun is a Professor of Pharmacology at UCL.

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