I met a patient recently, a lady I'll call Lisa, who was in her mid-50's and previously completely healthy. She had noticed a lump growing on the right side of her neck, about the size of a tangerine. A few days later, a lump developed on the left.
She was quickly referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor, who also noticed a growth on her tonsil. A biopsy of the tonsil and one of the lymph nodes in the neck showed a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
Special testing revealed that Lisa's cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV causes a few other types of cancer (including cervical cancer in women), but HPV-related throat cancer is becoming increasingly common. These types of throat cancers often develop between the ages of 50 and 75. Historically, the risk factors for throat cancers have been mainly alcohol and tobacco, so to find a throat cancer in a non-smoker and non-drinker used to be uncommon. That is no longer the case.
The good news for Lisa is that HPV-related cancers are very curable. With a combination of chemotherapy and radiation (a common approach in Canada), or sometimes surgery with radiation afterward (a common approach in the US), cure rates approach 90% in patients like Lisa. In this business, a 90% cure rate is excellent. (Side note: we have just completed a trial comparing the US and Canadian approaches - results next year).
But Lisa was very hesitant for any treatment. She shared that she'd seen a naturopath prior to visiting us, and the naturopath had told her that the cancer was incurable. She was told that standard treatments could 'hold the cancer' or cause it to shrink 60% of the time, but that eventually it would grow and cure was not possible. Lisa's husband, who also came to both appointments, confirmed what the naturopath had said.
Having delivered that information, the naturopath then sold her some 'treatments' that really don't do anything against cancer, including high-dose vitamin C. Understandably, having been led to believe that her cancer was incurable, Lisa was hesitant to try the treatment recommended by our head-and-neck cancer team.
Sometimes people think that alternative treatments are harmless, but there is the real potential for harm here. Lisa's cancer is curable now, but it might not be curable in a few months. If it spreads to other parts of her body, it will be incurable and would then end up taking her life.
The naturopathic industry has become a Wild West of inaccurate medical claims. For some stories of what goes on behind the scenes, check out a website run by a former naturopath (Britt Marie Hermes) who was shocked by what she saw and is now trying to get the word out (www.naturopathicdiaries.com). These wild medical claims harm our patients: they provide false information, they sell expensive treatments that don't work, and in some cases (like a patient who is misled into abandoning curative treatments) can cost lives.
We need oversight of naturopaths. As a stark contrast, let's consider what would happen to me, as an oncologist, if I told Lisa the same thing that her naturopath reportedly said:
And these would all be reasonable punishments for such a serious transgression.
Why do we have a double standard, where a doctor would be seriously punished for actions that seem common in some naturopathic offices?
After a long, honest discussion, Lisa has opted to undergo treatment. We won't know if she's cured for five years. But her chances are excellent. If she had listened to her naturopath, we might have lost our chance at a happy ending.
Naturopaths are profiting by proving false medical information that harms our patients, but helps their own bottom line. No one is stepping in to stop them. We need our government and health regulators to step in and provide oversight in the Wild West of alternative treatments.
To read more about naturopathic cancer treatments, see a guest post from Britt Marie Hermes: Naturopathic Cancer Care: Is it safe, and does it work?
*Lisa's identity has been changed to protect her confidentiality