Preying on people with cancer

The Cancer Act 1939 is one of the few pieces of legislation that outlaws pseudo-scientific medical bollocks. As Cancer Research explains:

At its heart, the current incarnation of the Cancer Act is designed to protect cancer patients and the public from being bombarded with adverts for cancer treatments, from any source, including medical professionals, pharmaceutical companies, alternative practitioners, or anyone else.

One of the reason the act exists is because charlatans prey on people with cancer. If you’re convinced that you’re going to die, or that the treatment that may save you could be almost as bad as the disease, you’re a soft mark for sharks peddling expensive miracle cures.

Maybe the Mirror’s lawyers should have a word with its editorial team. This article is appalling.

Terminally ill mum who hid cancer claims tumour shrunk 75% after ‘alternative care’

After a friend told her about an alternative cancer treatment centre called ‘Hope4Cancer’ in Cancun, Mexico, Kate re-mortgaged her home and dug into her life savings in order to afford the £35,000 three-week program.

And following her first treatment in late October, Kate was amazed after scans revealed that the tumour on her lung had shrunk by 75 per cent – going from the size of an apple to the size of a grape – while there is now zero traces of cancer in her lymph nodes and limited cancer in her liver.

There’s just one little problem with all of that. From the same article:

I was put on a target therapy drug called Alectinib

Over to you Clive Peedell, NHS consultant clinical oncologist with a particular interest in lung cancer:

Sorry, but as a lung cancer specialist, I can confirm that this story is nonsense. The lady was on alectinib, which is a highly effective targeted therapy used in ALK+ve lung cancer ie her dramatic response had nothing to do with the alternative therapies.

So what we have here is an advert for a bullshit facility in Mexico that takes enormous sums of money from people at their most vulnerable. Sadly the Mirror could argue that this is editorial, not advertising, and therefore exempt from prosecution under the Cancer Act. But while it may comply with the letter of the law, it certainly doesn’t comply with its spirit.

Then again, it might not comply with the letter of the law after all. Cancer Research again:

The Cancer Act still covers social media and any websites that are accessible within the UK, if they’re aimed at the general public rather than the specific groups of people mentioned above, and Trading Standards can still choose to prosecute people advertising through them.

The march of idiocy


I wrote about the horrors of unvaccinated children the other day. This is a great example of the problem.

The article is about Shanelle Cartwright, the wife of an Australian rugby player. Over 400-odd words it regurgitates nonsense she posted on social media, describing her refusal  to vaccinate her kids as a “controversial decision”.

It’s not a controversial decision. It’s a dangerous decision that could threaten the lives of other people’s children.

This happens constantly in media, in all kinds of subjects: someone refusing to accept settled science is portrayed as part of a debate where both sides have equal value. But they don’t. The Earth is not flat. We landed on the moon. The Holocaust happened. Climate change is real. Barack Obama wasn’t born in Kenya. Vaccination saves lives.

A recent study found that nearly 10% of Americans think vaccines are unsafe. That doesn’t mean that nearly 10% of Americans know more than science. It means that nearly 10% of Americans are idiots.

I briefly subscribed to a Reddit section about stupid people on Facebook. I had to unsubscribe again because the sheer, grinding, unrelenting idiocy of it was making me fear for humanity. It’s just wall to wall insanity: nurses claiming that the sun can’t damage your skin, people telling cancer patients to forget chemo and cut down on sugar instead, people sharing graphics showing that vaccinations include a range of lethal chemicals including dihydroxen monoxide.

Dihydrogen Monoxide is better known as H2O.

I wish I was making this up.

Never mind asking whether these people should be given a platform. I don’t think they should be given cutlery.

It’s really very simple: idiots shouldn’t be given a platform to spout idiocy unless you make it really, really clear that they have no idea what they’re talking about. We generally don’t give column inches or air time to people who believe that the world is flat, because it isn’t. But with vaccination, climate change and other hot-button topics, we repeatedly give idiots a megaphone. And every time we do, we legitimise their bullshit and the world gets a little more stupid.

Murderous delusions

Image from Reddit. Creator unknown.

On Friday, hundreds of US parents protested against the vaccination of children. I liked the Huffington Post headline: Parents Protest For Kids’ Right To Suffer From Preventable Illness. 

The protest was in Washington State, which is currently in the middle of a measles epidemic. The parents are trying to stop a bill that would remove personal or philosophical exemptions for child vaccination. It’s an attempt to stop a dangerous trend: the WHO describes the anti-vaccination movement as one of the top threats to global health in 2019.

The anti-vax movement is profoundly anti-scientific, and repeats the non-existent link between autism and vaccination popularised by the thoroughly discredited charlatan Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield, sadly, is still peddling his nonsense and thousands of parents believe it.

It’s important to stress here that vaccines are among the most studied medicines in human history. There is no link between vaccination and autism. None.

The parents who campaign against keeping children alive aren’t malicious. But they’ve fallen victim to the same thing that drives climate change denial or flat-Earthism: I can’t see it, therefore it can’t exist.

It also ties in with anti-government, anti-expert sentiment. How dare you tell me what I need to do to protect my children?

This isn’t a movement of stupid people, or uneducated people, although some anti-vax posters on social media might persuade you otherwise. The demographics skew heavily in favour of reasonably affluent, reasonably well-educated middle-class white women.

It’s cruelly ironic that vaccines have fallen victim to their own success: we no longer see the victims of the diseases they eliminate. My generation and the generations after me haven’t grown up around children whose limbs have been destroyed by polio. We haven’t seen people’s faces scarred and distorted by smallpox. We don’t know of brothers or sisters who died from whooping cough.

If we can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

The parents’ murderous delusion could kill not just their own children, but other people’s children too. Some children don’t have the luxury of choosing whether to be vaccinated or not: they’re too young, or they don’t have access to health care, or they have medical conditions that would make vaccination unsafe, or they’re still in the womb. With a successful vaccination programme those children are protected: herd immunity means that it’s effectively impossible for dangerous diseases to exist in a community, so the likelihood of these children being exposed is near zero.

That only works if most children get vaccinated, though. When the numbers fall even a little bit, below 90 to 95%, herd immunity disappears and preventable, deadly diseases recur. That’s exactly what’s happening now. For example, in Clark County – part of the same state where the anti-vaxxers were protesting – just 78% of nursery school children have had the full slate of vaccination. 43 of those unvaccinated children have contracted measles. In the US alone, more than 9 million children are currently at risk of contracting measles as a result of under-vaccination.

This isn’t an argument to be won on facts, on debating whether or not vaccines are safe. The anti-vaxxers have seen the evidence and simply choose not to believe it. The only way to change these people’s minds appears to be to show them the horrific consequences of the diseases the vaccines prevent, and the danger they’re putting so many children in.

Sage advice

Women are being warned not to put herbs in their vaginas after a Marie Claire article suggested that they should use parsley to “kick-start” their periods.

It’s easy to laugh, but it’s actually quite a serious problem: time and again magazines and online magazines aimed at women print deluded and sometimes actively dangerous health advice from people who haven’t got the faintest clue what they’re on about.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop site is a good example: it urges women to do all kinds of dangerous things to their genitals and weasels out of taking responsibility for any resultant injury or infection with a disclaimer effectively saying that “the products or procedures mentioned on the site are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.” Some of Paltrow’s fact-free tips have appeared in supposedly reputable magazines such as Women’s Health.

A few years ago, one study looked at the articles about complementary medicine in a range of women’s magazines. Of the 150 articles studied in 15 women’s magazines, 131 “were written by non medically qualified contributors”. Of the 150 articles, 95 made unsubstantiated claims about herbal “remedies” that can be very dangerous for some people.

I’m surprised Marie Claire slipped up, because as magazines go it’s one of the better ones. But it’s an industry-wide problem. Between “alternative” medicine, dangerous diets and cheerleading for cosmetic surgery, women’s magazines are often really bad for women’s health – and the more magazines move online and become low- or no-paying content farms, the worse the problem is going to become.

The kids are alright

Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of the thinky thoughts of anti-trans columnists, we had some actual research into children, gender dysphoria and gender identity?

Look what The Atlantic found!

Since 2013, Kristina Olson, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has been running a large, long-term study to track the health and well-being of transgender children—those who identify as a different gender from the one they were assigned at birth. Since the study’s launch, Olson has also heard from the parents of gender-nonconforming kids, who consistently defy gender stereotypes but have not socially transitioned. They might include boys who like wearing dresses or girls who play with trucks, but who have not, for example, changed the pronouns they use.

I’ve been a fan of the author, Ed Yong, for a long time: he’s a very talented and conscientious science writer. This is typical of his work: he’s taken Olson’s study and looked into it in some detail.

Unlike newspaper columnists, who offer zero evidence with 100% confidence, Olson offers detailed evidence but is also quick to point out the limitations of the study. Nevertheless, it’s interesting: children’s gender identity appears to be a pretty good predictor of whether they’ll turn out to be trans. From the article:

Charlotte Tate, a psychologist from San Francisco State University, says that this quantitative research supports what she and other transgender scholars have long noted through qualitative work: There really is something distinctive and different about the kids who eventually go on to transition. From interviews with trans people, “one of the most consistent themes is that at some early point, sometimes as early as age 3 to 5, there’s this feeling that the individual is part of another gender group,” Tate says. When told that they’re part of their assigned gender, “they’ll say, ‘No, that’s not right. That doesn’t fit me.’ They have self-knowledge that’s private and that they’re trying to communicate.”

This bit is key:

Olson’s team also showed that those differences in gender identity are the cause of social transitions—and not, as some have suggested, their consequence.

In other words, children are not coerced into having a particular gender identity: you can put Jimmy in as many dresses as you want but if Jimmy isn’t trans, he won’t suddenly become trans or develop gender dysphoria.

Older trans people are going “no shit, Sherlock” at this point: if it were possible to persuade people to change their gender identity, there wouldn’t be any trans people. You can’t talk people into or out of being trans any more than you can pray the gay away: some of us tried not to be trans for decades, and will spend decades trying to deal with the damage from that.

Once again there are very strong parallels between today’s harmful anti-trans bullshit and previously harmful anti-gay bullshit. That’s something the Atlantic article makes explicit, describing the work of American psychologist Evelyn Hooker.

In the 1950s, when many psychologists saw homosexuality as a mental illness (largely because they had only ever worked with gay people who had records of arrest or mental-health problems), Hooker surveyed a more representative sample and found that gay and straight men don’t differ in their mental health. That was instrumental in getting homosexuality removed from a list of mental-health disorders in 1987. “We’re sitting in a similar moment today with transgenderism,” says Devor. “The mental-health issues that we see are largely the result of living a life that blocks your expression of your gender. My view is that the work coming out of Olson’s group will have an Evelyn Hooker effect.”

I’m not naive enough to think this will have any effect on the mainstream media coverage of trans people in general and trans kids in particular: the moral panic is too well established. But it’s yet more evidence of the growing gap between the reality-based community and the commentariat. All too often, the you-couldn’t-make-it-up brigade are doing exactly that.

“It was my first taste of what it meant to have my freedom taken from me.”

Helen Taylor is the author of The Backstreets of Purgatory, which is ace. She’s a hell of a writer, a genuinely lovely person and the writer of this heartbreaking piece about being sectioned.

We were supposed to have one-to-one sessions where I told him what I was feeling. It was meant to help, to give me some kind of release.

‘Ronnie, I think you are a prick,’ I told him.

‘I don’t give a fuck what you think,’ he told me in reply.

If you’re not familiar with the term, “sectioned” means being detained under section 25 of the Mental Health Act. Taylor was sectioned after a traumatic experience made her existing depression considerably worse.

It’s not an easy read, but it’s a powerful piece.

Why are LGBT people so sad?

Stonewall Scotland has published a worrying report: half of LGBT people have experienced depression in the last year, rising to 72% among trans people. More than half of trans people have thought about taking their life in the last 12 months.

Here’s the thing, though. LGBT people are not more prone to depression or suicidal ideation if they are in a supportive environment. In those environments, rates of depression and suicidal ideation pretty much revert to the same as non-LGBT people.

The difference is largely environmental. If your everyday environment is abusive and unaccepting, it of course has a direct effect on your mental health.

It’s not the only factor – trans people are currently treated under the auspices of mental health provision, which means we’re in a desperately unfunded part of a desperately underfunded part of a desperately underfunded NHS, a world where mental health counselling has a waiting list of more than a year – but it’s a significant factor. The newspapers that concentrate on the invented “dangers” of trans people in hospitals while ignoring a very real mental health crisis are part of the problem.

Nothing looks as good as money

Amanda Mull has found the secret to perfect skin: be rich.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t moisturise, keep hydrated or stay out of the sun. But the celebrity beauty secrets magazines are so keen to share tend not to include the best-kept secret of all:

You can drink as much water and wear as much sunscreen as you want, but the most effective skin-care trick is being rich.

Rich people look different to the rest of us, because rich people have access to things the rest of us don’t (and don’t do the jobs many of us mortals do, some of which are hardly skin-friendly).

Rich people who are also handsome or pretty have usually been lucky in the genetic lottery too. As Mull writes:

It’s no mystery to beauty editors and writers, as well as the famous women surveyed, that the answer is a combination of youth, genetic luck, and access to expensive products, treatments, and cosmetic dermatology procedures that few people outside their world could ever hope to experience.

If you get plenty of sleep, eat well, drink plenty of water and use skincare products you probably won’t end up looking like a monkey’s scrotum. But you’re not going to look like your favourite Hollywood star either – and the older you get, the more of a difference money, or lack of it, makes.

Why we still need to talk about consent

There are some truly terrifying numbers in a new survey on behalf of the End Violence Against Women Coalition [PDF document]. The study, of around 4,000 Britons, found that:

  • 33% people think rape isn’t rape if there isn’t physical violence;
  • A third of men think rape isn’t rape if the woman had flirted during a date;
  • 24% don’t think rape is rape if you’re in a long term relationship;
  • 11% believe that the more sexual partners a woman has had, the less harm she suffers if she’s raped
  • 40% don’t think it’s rape to stealthily remove a condom during sex;
  • 6% think it isn’t rape if the victim is asleep or too drunk to consent.

Attitudes were significantly worse among the over-65s: more than 1/3 thought non-consensual sex wasn’t rape if the person is your wife or partner, compared to 16% of under-24s; 42% think it’s okay to keep going if the woman changes her mind compared to 22% of under-49s.

That matters. As the Coalition’s report explains:

This generational difference is concerning because many of the cases being reported to the police are younger women who have a clear view of consent, which may not be shared by many of the people who make up juries.

The whole document makes for important but thoroughly depressing reading. We need to be better than this.

Dying for your art

This is heartbreaking. Sculptor Gillian Genser has been slowly poisoned by the shells she used in her artworks.

In 2015, I was diagnosed with heavy-metal poisoning. Doctors found high levels of arsenic and lead in my blood, the result of chronic exposure. The water where the mussels grew was likely contaminated from industrial waste, and the mussel shells I’d been working with for decades were toxic. Metals can be absorbed through consumption, air or skin. I’d been exposed in every way.

Genser’s work is very beautiful, I think, and she says that her poisoning makes it even more relevant.

When we talk about environmental damage, we speak of declines in populations. Numbers and species. But I’ve experienced the suffering of so many creatures trapped in their polluted habitats. I now hope their voices can be heard—that my art might create a sense of awe, a sense of connectivity and reverence for the natural world.