Anti-ScienceSkepticism

ZOMGCancer!!!!1111!!!

This week, I received an email with the subject:

“CANCER INFO.UPDATES…..very important and informative!”

As many of you know, my husband recently completed a series of treatments for thyroid cancer. In addition, my sister had a cervical cancer scare last year and my best friend from college has had two rounds of treatment from two different types of cancer in the past couple of years. Plus, my former boss and good friend has been fighting leukemia for about 4 years now. Cancer is sort of a hot button issue for me at the moment, if you can believe it.

The email began:

PLEASE BE SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE TO PASS THIS IMPORTANT INFORMATION TO OTHERS.

AFTER YEARS OF TELLING PEOPLE CHEMOTHERAPY IS THE ONLY WAY TO TRY (TRY THE KEYWORD) AND ELIMINATE CANCER, JOHNS HOPKINS IS FINALLY STARTING TO TELL YOU THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE WAY.

Uh oh. Warning bells started to go off immediately. A quick trip to Snopes and I discovered that this email is, if you can believe it, a piece of crap.

I probably should have let it go at that point. But I read on, because I noticed that this particular piece of spam uses some common techniques to promote bad, bad things. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through these techniques to demonstrate the particularly insidious nature of this piece of pseudoscience.

Technique #1: Claim authority.

Cancer Update from Johns Hopkins

The email makes multiple references to Johns Hopkins. By referencing a facility which is well known for new advancements in medical treatments, it fakes credibility.  Interestingly, this particular email has apparently been around for a while. Long enough for Johns Hopkins to provide a detailed response and alert that the information is not from them and why it’s wrong. For that reason, I’m not going to go into the details of why the content here is wrong – they’ve done a fine job of that. I’m more interested in how the spammer gets your attention. And that’s with:

Technique #2: Ensure your audience will keep reading by making it relevant to them, immediately.

  1. Every person has cancer cells in the body.
  2. Cancer cells occur between 6 to more than 10 times in a person’s life time.

According to the Johns Hopkins site, it’s true in that among the trillions of cells in the human body, inevitably everyone has some abnormal or atypical cells that possess some of the characteristics of cancer cells. However, most resolve themselves and never result in cancer.

Which brings me to Technique # 3: Drop in a few pieces of truth into the mix, for credibility.

To overcome the multiple nutritional deficiencies, changing diet and including supplements will strengthen the immune system.

Initial treatment with chemotherapy and radiation will often reduce tumor size.

When the body has too much toxic burden from chemotherapy and radiation the immune system is either compromised or destroyed, hence the person can succumb to various kinds of infections and complications

Hey, all that sounds reasonable, no? Or at least like stuff you’ve heard before.

Now your target is primed for Technique #4: Lie, lie, and lie some more.

When the person’s immune system is strong the cancer cells will be destroyed and prevented from multiplying and forming tumors.

When a person has cancer it indicates the person has multiple nutritional deficiencies. These could be due to genetic, environmental, food and lifestyle (lack of sleep) factors.

During your lies, be sure to include plenty of Technique #5: Fear

Chemotherapy … destroys rapidly-growing healthy cells in the bone marrow, gastro-intestinaltract etc, and can cause organ damage, like liver, kidneys, heart, lungs etc.

Chemotherapy involves poisoning the rapidly-growing cancer cells and also destroys rapidly-growing healthy cells in the bone marrow, gastro-intestinal tract etc, and can cause organ damage, like liver, kidneys, heart, lungs etc

Radiation while destroying cancer cells also burns, scars and damages healthy cells, tissues and organs.

Initial treatment with chemotherapy and radiation will often reduce tumor size. However prolonged use of chemotherapy and radiation do not result in more tumor destruction.

Chemotherapy and radiation can cause cancer cells to mutate and become resistant and difficult to destroy. Surgery can also cause cancer cells to spread to other sites.

And now that you’ve got your subject quivering with fear, let’s get to Technique # 6: Crazy-ass recommendations (not really a technique, more the whole point of the spam, I guess):

An effective way to battle cancer is to starve the cancer cells by not feeding it with the foods it needs to multiply.

The rest of the article goes on to talk about the foods and processes that cancer cells feed on and that you should therefore avoid. The list includes but is not limited to:

  • Sugar
  • Sugar substitutes
  • Milk
  • Red meat
  • Cooked food
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Chocolate
  • Caffeine
  • Tap water
  • Distilled water
  • Meat (I know I said that already. They say it 3 times)
  • Plastic containers or wrap in the microwave
  • Water bottles in the freezer

It suggests nutritional and life changes including:

  • A diet consisting of 80% fresh vegetables and juice, whole grains, seeds, nuts and a little fruit
  • Fresh vegetable juice
  • Green tea
  • A host of nutritional supplements to “enable the body’s own killer cells to destroy cancer cells.”
  • Oxygen therapy

Got all that? Now, by this point, one can assume that the email reader is subsisting on a diet of vitamins, sticks and dirt while cooking sprouts on a small fire in the backyard and trying to focus while breathing deeply and purifying their own water. So the email offers some final advice:

Cancer is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit.. A proactive and positive spirit will help the cancer warrior be a survivor. Anger, unforgiveness and bitterness put the body into a stressful and acidic environment. Learn to have a loving and forgiving spirit. Learn to relax and enjoy life.

Good luck with that. Oh, and one last thing. Technique #7: Make sure you make someone else’s life miserable too. Or you’re a bad person who hates everyone:

(PLEASE FORWARD IT TO PEOPLE YOU CARE ABOUT)

This is an article that should be sent to anyone important in your life.

I know I’ve gone on for way too long about this and most of you smart, skeptical readers probably wouldn’t have even gotten past the first paragraph of this email before deleting it. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has our skeptical glasses and it’s important that every time, EVERY TIME you get one of these, you do take the time to research it and send back a response.

Will we stop the spam from flowing? Probably not. And will this email *really* turn a lot of people to an all-vegetable diet in lieu of traditional cancer treatments? Probably not. But there are two reasons to always respond to these:

  1. If you point out the crazy, it may help someone look at the next piece of crazy with a little more skepticism.
  2. This email, like many others, has a particularly anti-science message. Chemotherapy is a scary enough prospect as it is. If this email causes even one person to try to use nutritional supplements instead of chemotherapy, it’s too much damage.

Cancer and cancer treatment is scary. But it works. All the people I mentioned at the beginning of this email are alive today because of traditional cancer treatment. We cannot let even these small attacks on traditional medicine go by unchallenged. There’s simply too much at stake.

Masala Skeptic

Maria Walters (a.k.a. Masala Skeptic) has spent a lot of time in ‘furrin parts,’ including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Pittsburgh. Although her passport is from India, she’s spent most of her adult life in the United States. She currently lives in Atlanta and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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41 Comments

  1. Marketing fear is an evil, vile, and sick way to make a buck. Also, the spam cited above plays on the desperate and unrealistic hope for an easy and painless way to avoid chemo/radiation. People are already afraid of the disease and they are generally afraid of the cure, too. Along comes some douchebag to dangle a promise of a simple and pain free way to survive the cancer. Who wouldn’t be tempted?
    Jackals. I hate ’em.

  2. All the people I mentioned at the beginning of this email are alive today because of traditional cancer treatment.

    I’m not. I died from surgery complications. Specifically, blunt-force trauma when I asked if the blood oxygen test came with a happy ending. I was hopped up on pain meds, and the guy looking at my gauges was tired of the endless hospital homoeroticism.

    I wrote about something similar (cancer treatments, I mean) for Amateur Scientist. Turns out you can also cure cancer with beets and antisemitism: http://www.amateurscientist.org/2009/04/lorraine-day-deadly-moonbat.html

    (Has it been three months? I should write more before Brian stops with my benefits.)

    It would be nice if there was a simple cure to diseases like cancer. Until there is, I’ll take my chances with the one with a proven track record.

  3. Every time I get one of these, I’m barely past the subject heading before I’ve gone to Snopes.

    Depending on the forward, I’ll reply either to the sender, or to all (because people who buy into this crap usually haven’t figured out how to use the bcc field yet, so I can reach a broad audience), and send the link to the Snopes article.

    The good news is, I get less forwards these days. The bad news is, getting less forwards usually means that they’ve just stopped sending them to me, and are still sending them to everyone else so I can’t correct their error in judgment.

  4. If you can’t have tap water or distilled water, what are you supposed to drink? Even if you buy bottled water, that’s what you’re usually getting anyway. I guess if you get dehydrated and die, the cancer will die with you. The only way to completely prevent cancer is to be dead.

  5. @catgirl: I didn’t get into it but it had a whole heap of crazy around water:

    best to drink purified water, or filtered, to avoid known toxins and heavy metals in tapwater.. Distilled water is acidic, avoid it.

    So apparently, you have to purify your water but *not* distill it. Even though distillation is pretty much the way to purify water.

    Head. Hurts.

  6. I remember something about distilled water being unstable. Don’t remember where I heard it from, or how true it is. It was something kind of old though, like an 80s or 90s TV show, mentioned in passing as a plot device, so I wouldn’t buy too much into it.

    But basically, it has something to do with the water being so pure because of the lack of other minerals that it rips electrons and other particles off of certain surfaces. Maybe that’s what they mean by acidic. It’s not acidic per-ce, but if a lay person saw that kind of reaction, they might assume it’s acidic.

  7. The thing that stands out about these kind of bogus info spiels is that they purport to cure about 12983074083 different things. Dirt and sticks and this infusion of nutrients will cure cancer and heart disease and MS and skin problems and bad breath and hangnails and lupus and….

    When my dad went to the CAM quack (http://www.drbazzan.com/) out of desperation about his vertigo, he was told very similar things. Become a vegetarian, take these bajillion supplements, come in to get IV nutrient drips. I was like um, WTF? I mean I’m all for perhaps eating BETTER, but that was loony…

    Makes me angry. Especially when it targets an issue that someone I love has. An ex-bf’s mom sold (sells?) this crap http://www.nonijuice.us/ and said it cured MS, which my grandma had at the time. I was like, really bitch? REALLY?

  8. When a person has cancer it indicates the person has multiple nutritional deficiencies.

    Which explains, of course, how highly-conditioned and well-nourished athletes like Lance Armstrong and Eric Davis developed cancer at the height of their careers.

    Just one tiny pebble in this mountain of stupid.

  9. @tempestbrewer: Yeah. I know. My dad had brain cancer and, right after coming out of surgery, his post-op nurse started trying to sell my mom on noni juice. Even the postmaster at their post office tried to push the stuff. I’m proud to say my parent’s didn’t buy a drop.

  10. Wow, what a bunch of crap. This shit is such nonsense because of the potential for harm – it’s crazy making!

    However, I have a teeny, tiny beef with your write up: characterizing a vegetarian or vegan diet as “vitamins, sticks and dirt” isn’t really fair. It’s probably quite different and strange seeming from the usual north american diet, but it can certainly be delicious and enjoyable, not to mention nutritionally complete when well planned. :)

    Though of course telling people they should change their eating habits rather than get chemo is evil and bad, bad, bad. But don’t slam the plants!

  11. @blogosaurus:

    However, I have a teeny, tiny beef with your write up: characterizing a vegetarian or vegan diet as “vitamins, sticks and dirt” isn’t really fair.

    I wasn’t talking about a vegan or vegetarian diet. I was talking about a diet that this email recommended, which really isn’t vegan or vegetarian. (I didn’t quote it all but it did include limited amounts of chicken and fish but no sugar, caffeine etc. and a laundry list of nutritional supplements).

    Honestly, I didn’t think of it as vegan or vegetarian at all. Plus, I was trying to be funny with hyperbole.

    In fact, some of my best friends are vegetarians and I love them, even if they are plant murderers. :)

  12. @Masala Skeptic:

    Hmm, I guess you could filter water to purify it, but any water will become slightly acidic over time, as carbon dioxide from the air dissolves in it to make carbonic acid. However, it never gets acidic enough to be considered “acidic” in any context other than a chemistry lab, and it certainly can’t compare with the acidity of stomach acid. All the pH stuff about making your “system” more or less acidic just makes even worse.

  13. My dad died of Prostate cancer in the early 80’s; he lived almost 5 years to the day of when he was diagnosed. A lot has changed since then due to medical science. Nothing has changed in the woo: same crap being offered. Due to things like the ability to diagnoses at earlier stages; and advancements in treatments I personally know some guys that have prostate cancer and it has been in remission for almost ten years. Modern medicine or western if you will; gave 3 to 4 years to my dad that he would otherwise not have had. Yes there are some nasty side effects to chemo; radiation; and multiple operations, but at least he was alive and with the family.
    This is a sore point for me also. I get unbelievably pissed when I hear about all the woo crap for cancer treatments and things to turn people away from medical care….
    Time to stop or I will be pissed off the rest of the day just from my own post.

    Other topic: Late Congrats to Rebecca & Sid!

  14. I have had mixed responses to my “debunk everything you send me” habit. I have lost friends because they were insulted that I used the “reply all” feature to inform them of their mistake (resorted to after weeks and months of replying only to the sender and imploring them to check their sources). I have had to block my grandmother-in-law entirely from my e-mail (her messages now go straight to Trash, un-read) because she refused to check out anything before sending it on, and refused to exclude me from her list despite my regular pleas.
    On the bright side, I get a LOT less junk e-mail, and I get a lot less e-mail overall. And I haven’t broken out in hives, recently.

    Of course, this isn’t limited to e-mail anymore. Now we have MySpace bulletins and Facebook notes where we can spread the lies even further! Luckily, people have actually started e-mailing me privately before posting things on their Facespaces because they know I will just mock them mercilessly if they don’t source-check first.

    I also try to work in a sarcastic, “because I read it on the internet, so it MUST be true!!” whenever possible, paving the way for a conversation about why you shouldn’t take anything on faith. Even if it’s from your grandmother.

    How sad and depraved, to focus people already ill or weak, or the stressed family members of those suffering, just to shill for nonsense.

    Being “socially responsible” means not forwarding lies to all your friends!!!

  15. Having had a few experiences with cancer among loved ones, this email makes me so angry that I almost can’t sort it out. Especially that flippant “Now go scare your friends!” at the end.

    One thing I do not understand – who, specifically, thought they might benefit from this. Did it start out as a woo-sters newsletter and get forwarded on? It would be very interesting to track down the original source.

  16. One other thing about this type of ghoulish marketing: if you resist the tempation to buy into it, you still sit around wondering “what if?” You’re nauseous, your hair is falling out, you’re tired all the time, AND you’re wondering, “did I just kill myself by refusing to have coffee squirted up my butt?”

  17. @Gabrielbrawley: Yes, but with logic.

    Oh! New million dollar idea – Logic Sticks! Basically a rain stick or heavy staff covered in scientific symbols, passed over the grave of Ambrose Bierce, and applied with mathematically determined force to the frontal lobe of the woo peddler.

    Big pharma will tell you that this causes not enlightenment, but potential brain damage, so obviously it works, right?

  18. @SkepLit:

    Yeah, that’s how they bring people in. Unfortunately, a lot of people (even very rational people) start to think “it couldn’t hurt to try it, just to be safe, right?” But then a lot of the things aren’t safe, because some cause direct problems, some interfere with real treatment, and the rest take money that you need for other things. Then there’s the problem of confirmation bias, and people become so convinced that the alternative stuff works that they believe the real stuff just isn’t necessary, and they end up convincing other people of that. This is how smart, educated, rational people can get sucked into scams like this.

  19. @catgirl: Toss in a little source amnesia and you have a large chunk of the market ready to clamor for the miracle cures.

    This email is a most likely an accident of the internet, i.e. something stupid but local that has been spread by well-meaning but ill-advised folk. To think that it is more calculated is to start our own woojobber conspiracy theory.

  20. Is this a hidden ad for Juice Plus???? A lady at my work goes around trying to sell this crap to everyone and the points listed are pretty much exactly what she claims. Unfortunately she targets me a lot (because I happen to be vegan for ethical reasons). I remember I was standing with her in the kitchen and she was telling me that she was bad and started eating fish again, and it’s hard to give up sugar. All I said was “Sugar?! I still eat sugar! I couldn’t live without that.”

    Her reply was “But it’s so BAD for you! Cancer feeds off of sugar!!”

    Ugh.

    I’m fine with people educating themselves and eating a vegan/vegetarian/whatever diet for health or moral reasons, but actually use science, not some mumbo jumbo mascarading as science and using scare tactics to frighten the ignorant.

  21. I have a friend who used to forward me these sorts of spam emails all the time. I finally got fed up when she sent out the one about canola oil (did you know it comes from the RAPE plant?!?!), and started responding by sending her the links to sites, like Snopes, that debunked the messages. After a while, she got the hint. Either she stopped forwarding scare-monger emails, or she at least removed me from her forwards list. I benefit either way.

  22. This *exact* poster (a print out of the email you took apart above) was up on the bulletin board outside the chem dept. at my uni.

    I was furious, since that particular board was restricted to faculty only, and had the faculty approval stamp on it – meaning that one of the chem dept., who should have known better, stuck it up there.

    First time in my life I acted like a vandal. Tore the thing off and threw it in the trash.

  23. “I probably should have let it go at that point.”

    No, I think while people are still sending emails to warn people away from chemotherapy whose families are trying to deal with cancer, you probably shouldn’t. I’ve never actually been sent anything nearly this infuriating myself, but I hope I’d take the time to put together a coherent and detailed response if I did. I still don’t know exactly where I stand, as regards the best approach for approaching people who buy into all this stuff, but there must be something we can say.

  24. The dietary stuff is nearly the exact same recommendations my sister in law was given at a laetrile clinic in Tijuana Mexico. An implied part of this whole sack of shit is that most or nearly all cancer patients are some home responsible (at least in part) for getting cancer in the first place. Having gone through the same stuff as Masala’s husband this past year I’ve nearly gone verbally postal on a couple of jerks who started asking questions to see if they could find the lifestyle shortcoming that led to my cancer.

    And if someday they find out Scotch and gin caused my cancer then I’m really fucked because my libations were an integral part of my recovery process.

  25. @phlebas:

    I’m not. I died from surgery complications. Specifically, blunt-force trauma when I asked if the blood oxygen test came with a happy ending. I was hopped up on pain meds, and the guy looking at my gauges was tired of the endless hospital homoeroticism.

    COTW! Even if no one else noticed this pearl of funny in between all the pearls of serious.

  26. @James Fox: “Having gone through the same stuff as Masala’s husband this past year I’ve nearly gone verbally postal on a couple of jerks who started asking questions to see if they could find the lifestyle shortcoming that led to my cancer.”

    I hear ya, but this is so human. I find myself doing it when someone is relating their accident or disease. Inside my head I’m thinking “Okay, how is this not going to happen to me?” To my credit, however, I don’t think I’ve ever verbalized it.

    One of my annoying habits when I’m feeling frisky is to freak out the uninformed about cancer. Especially those people who think that gobbling multivitamins can ward off cancer. “What do you think cancer cells live on anyway? Right now you could have a tumor that is just delighted to get some extra selenium. Grow big and strong like bull! Make many babies!” Or people who think cancer is somehow a death sentence. “Heck, you probably have some form of cancer right now. Chances are very good you won’t die from it, but who knows?”

    (Yes, I’ve had cancer. I was lucky and it was easily treatable. Given my family history it’s a coin flip between dying of cancer and heart disease. Until it happens, however, I’m going to enjoy as much life as I get.)

  27. My wife is a Stage III colon cancer survivor. She got this note from a friend the other day. Here was her response. Feel free to copy and paste as appropriate:

    Dear_____

    You forwarded me the article regarding “cancerupdate”. The website below and others will prove the information is false and John Hopkins denies any involvement. I thought you should know and share the information with whoever shared it with you. The information is incredibly misleading and hurtful.
    I realize you had good intentions, but I felt I should share this information with you. The CDC and American Cancer Society are reputable sources of information.
    Take care,
    Holly

    http://www.snopes.com/medical/disease/cancerupdate.asp

  28. “But it’s important to remember that not everyone has our skeptical glasses and it’s important that every time, EVERY TIME you get one of these, you do take the time to research it and send back a response.”

    I did this with all the dumb political and religious emails I got from my parents. I replied to EVERYONE on the list when sent some stupid anti-immigration email that was overwhelmingly ignorant and racist. I did a point-by-point analysis including links to academic sources, and waited for the backlash. I got ONE angry email from my stepmother, and SEVERAL thank yous from other family/friends. I’ve since been taken off of her forward list, but it was fun times.

  29. @peregrine, Vengeful Harridan: Yeah, I’ve had the same reactions when I debunk these e-mails. I’ve had to repeatedly de-bunk the same e-mail to the same people numerous times. When does it become a waste of our time to debunk them?

    @ miedvied: I’ve done that, too. Some days, I just don’t suffer fools gladly.

  30. @QuestionAuthority: I don’t think it is a waste of time. Eventually, somewhere, on some level, it will begin to sink in that they are wasting their time with us and will stop sending us the nonsense, or it will occur to them that they need to start fact-checking.
    I remember hearing Rebecca talk, on the SGU podcast, about some of her co-workers and how they would send nonsense and send nonsense, and then after encountering the debunking machine that is Rebecca they started to ask her before just sending the nonsense willy-nilly, and then finally, finally, finally, they started Snopesing themselves. So, perhaps there’s hope.

    Besides, I just can’t let it go when I hear or receive nonsense. I just can’t.

  31. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina):

    I remember hearing Rebecca talk, on the SGU podcast, about some of her co-workers and how they would send nonsense and send nonsense, and then after encountering the debunking machine that is Rebecca they started to ask her before just sending the nonsense willy-nilly, and then finally, finally, finally, they started Snopesing themselves. So, perhaps there’s hope.

    There is always hope!

    My mother spent her first five years on the net as a Spam Repeater Station. I would look it up, reply with something inoffensive like “I wish this were true, but…” and send it out to everyone.

    Eventually she started sending them to me for verification. About 1 in 50 were legit, almost all were current virus threats.

    Then one day she mentioned something my Aunt had sent, and Mom said “Snopes said it was wrong, though.” Success!

    Of course that is one success out of many failures. The only thing my older sister reads and does not believe are true, verifiable things. And my brother thinks the Founding Fathers were Southern Baptists to a man.

    But there is always hope…

  32. @Masala Skeptic: Huh, they say meat three times, and that doesn’t extend to chicken and/or fish? WTF?

    @blogosaurus: If that was an indirect response to my snark, I just wanted to clarify: I see nothing wrong with (well-planned) vegetarian or vegan diets, but I’ve seen them touted (especially raw vegan) as prevent-and/or cure-alls way too many times. And then when an adherent gets some terrible disease, the fact that they were omnivorous for the first 17 years of their life gets blamed. That or “negative ions” or whatever.

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