Zorba Paster: Look At The Science Behind Alternative Medicine

Alternative Medicines Can Answer Many Questions Western Medicine Doesn't

Al Goldis/AP Photo

Dear Doc: Sometimes I agree with you, sometimes I don’t. Chelation therapy and thermography for breast cancer are not in the realm of standard Western medicine. When you called them quackery, you crashed and burned.

While I agree chelation is not a proven therapy for Alzheimer’s, it is an excellent therapy to clean the arteries. And as for thermograms, there is no X-ray exposure. Just like mammograms, there are false positives and negatives. But done correctly, if a suspicious area is found, then a mammogram can be run. Many, many women take that route.

My wife has a health food store and I have seen chelation and thermography work. No, they are not charlatan and quackery, doc, just different. I read your column regularly.

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— P.M., Pharm.D.

Dear P.M.: I do not have a problem with unproven therapies at all. In fact, many folk therapies and alternative therapies are unproven because no one has run a study. That doesn’t mean they don’t work, it just means we can’t evaluate them. I take a “no-harm-no-foul” approach when it comes to these.

Chelation is a fake, pure and simple. It’s been studied quite a bit. I recommend you go to the American Heart Journal and read “Chelation therapy for coronary heart disease: An overview of all clinical investigations.”

As for cost, dozens of treatments at $100 a crack often cost patients about $5,000. That’s not just quackery, it’s basically thievery.

Now, as for thermograms, my view is a bit different. This technology was developed in the 1950s as a screening test for breast cancer. The medical community lost interest in it, as it was not as sensitive as mammogram technology. But there have not been any recent well-controlled studies to see if new thermography technology is better.

Let me go on just a bit to explain my stand.

First, two definitions: A false positive is when a test says there is something wrong and there isn’t. In the case of a mammogram, there are many false positives and most are cleared up when the radiologist calls a patient back for additional films. Turns out that women who get a mammogram every year for 10 years have about a 50 percent chance of getting a false positive at one time or another.

But more dangerous, by far, is the false negative rate. That’s where the mammogram says there is nothing there and, in fact, there is a cancer. Unfortunately, this occurs in 20 percent of women with breast cancer.

The problem with thermograms is that we don’t know what the false negative rate is. They do pick up some breast cancers, which can be followed up with mammography and biopsies. But since we don’t know what the false negative rate is, this is not, shall we say, reassuring.

My spin: Alternative and complementary medicines can answer many questions Western medicine does not. But before you spend your money, know what you’re buying. If you believe in science and a therapy has been proven to be worthless, then chuck it. If it hasn’t been studied scientifically, then use your common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, then — as my mom would say — it probably is. Stay well.