Julie Reason, 39, unfortunately has stage IV breast cancer, which means that is has spread and is probably incurable. In her desperation, which is completely understandable, she is turning to “holistic, natural” treatments thinking that they offer hope. The scientific evidence tells us they don’t offer hope, only a false but compelling narrative optimized to ensnare desperate people.

It is also unfortunate that Julie and her husband Christian have decided to make a feature length film in order to spread that narrative, which can only serve to ensnare other people into this false hope.

The Narrative

As is often discussed in skeptical writing, people like stories. We learn and communicate through stories, and we intuitively understand them. A good story will therefore tend to take on a life of its own, even when completely disconnected from reality. We call deeply rooted elaborate narratives – culture.

The so-called “alternative medicine” phenomenon is largely based on a narrative, one that has been successfully marketed. Proponents collectively took treatments and health claims that 40 years ago were considered health fraud and flipped the narrative – these treatments were not rejected because they lacked scientific backing, but because of a systematic bias in the medical-industrial complex. Health care con-artists were no longer the villains, they were the heroes trying to bring natural cures to the public and opposed by a cabal of science-based thugs. It amazes me still how well this narrative worked.

They are also trying to flip the narrative on what constitutes good science. While mainstream medicine is going through a period of self-reflection where it is generally agreed that we need to increase the rigor of science (more replication, less p-hacking, etc.), the parallel CAM movement is trying to weaken the rigor of medical science. They are not succeeding for medical science in general, but are successfully carving out a double standard for themselves. For regular medicine, we need rigorous science. For “alternative” medicine we can get by with pathetically low standards of science that will say whatever we want it to, and still get to label our treatments “evidence based.” It is an incredible scam.

In order to claim that treatments which are clearly useless or have already been shown not to work are still valid, the narrative needs to include a conspiracy theory to explain away any inconvenient evidence. That is the purpose of a conspiracy theory – it is a magic wand that dismisses any negative evidence, and explains away the lack of any positive evidence. Conspiracy theories can be made up as needed, and invoked at will without the burden of showing evidence for the conspiracy itself.

I don’t blame patients facing terminal illness for embracing this narrative. Would you rather live in a world where you have an incurable and terminal illness, or one in which there is a hidden cure out there, but the forces of evil are trying to hide it from you? All you need is to be plucky enough to pursue the cure and your problems will be solved.

The narrative also incorporates the ubiquitous appeal to nature fallacy – anything natural is good, and anything “chemical” is bad. Cancer is caused by exposure to chemicals, so all you have to do to cure it is purge yourself of chemicals and consume only all-natural foods and pure water. Oh yeah, and a bunch of supplements you will have to mortgage your house to pay for.

That is the narrative that has victimized Julie Reason. She says:

The diet is very strict, basically just fruit and veg while I can only drink water. I also take between 60 and 70 supplements a day with some of them as expensive as £90, while I also take cannabis oil which helps.

Promoting the film she and her husband are trying to fund, he says:

The feature-length documentary will look at how the chemicals used in agriculture and food, as well as our general everyday environment, affect our bodies’ immune system. Against All Odds will bring a better understanding to the problem we face as consumers, where large multinational companies are putting profits before the health of the people, and will look at the influences corporations have on government. The film will bring you some inspiring stories from people who have turned their lives around and are beating cancer after being labelled as stage four terminally ill.

Yep, that’s the narrative in a nutshell.

This is also a common approach to promoting dubious treatments, using anecdotal evidence. You cannot know if an individual has “beaten cancer” because of a specific treatment. That is because cancer is a complex category of many diseases, and has a variable natural history. You cannot know what would have happened in any individual if they had chosen different treatment options or no treatment. It is also very common for those facing cancer to combine multiple treatments, standard and dubious. There is a tendency to credit the dubious treatment, partly because that justifies the decision to pursue such treatment in the first place.

There is also a well-known phenomenon called “survivor bias.” If 100 people have cancer with 98% fatality, and then you talk to the 2 people who survive you might be tempted to conclude that whatever they were doing was responsible for their survival. However, they may just be lucky. This is like asking lotto winners how they pick their numbers.

This is the problem with anecdotal evidence – it doesn’t really tell you anything (except what you want to conclude in the first place). We need high quality scientific evidence to sort through all the complexity.

What the science shows (as nicely reviewed by David Gorski) is that a good diet and regular exercise are associated with an overall decreased risk of developing cancer. However, once you develop cancer it is too late to prevent it. The relationship between diet and cancer outcomes is more complex.

The bottom line is that you cannot cure your cancer with diet. Good nutrition is important to good outcomes, but they don’t treat the cancer itself. Cancer is both a genetic and metabolic disease, and is complex. No simplistic approach is likely going to work, and there is no reason to think that eating fruits and vegetables is going to alter the genetic mutations that make cells cancerous. The usual justification for the diet approach is that a good diet “boosts the immune system.” This is based on the false premise that a healthy immune system can beat all cancers all the time. But this is simply not true.

I wish the best for Julie Reason, but the film she plans with her husband is misguided. It is based on a false and simple narrative, divorced from science, and is nothing more than a conspiracy theory. It is especially pernicious to frame the narrative as providing hope for the terminal. False hope can lead people to do desperate and self-destructive things, and to distrust the very people who are likely to be giving the best advice.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.