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One of the frustrating, but also motivating, aspects of promoting science-based medicine is the window it provides into the human psyche. People really are largely driven by the narratives they use to understand the world. We are also vulnerable to other people implanting narratives in us through marketing and manipulation for their own (often nefarious) purposes.

For example, not a week goes by when I am not accused of being a shill for Big Pharma (despite there being zero reality to this claim). Many people just accept this “shill” narrative without really thinking about it, because it fits comfortably with the overall narrative they are being sold. The information and perspective we provide on SBM clashes with the “alternative medicine” narrative they have come to accept, and they can easily wipe away the resulting cognitive dissonance by playing the shill card. As a bonus they get the illusion of taking the moral high ground by falsely accusing us of being shills.

The power of this evolving alternative medicine narrative is even enough to motivate some people to forgo proven cancer treatments, and to rely on magic and toxic snake oil, even as they slowly and obviously die from their cancer. We feel compelled to document some of these cases here because it is a critically important part of why we do what we do. Far from being shills, we truly are motivated to simply protect people from the harms of relying on snake oil.

The death of Helen Lawson

This is a particularly upsetting story, as it shows how extreme these cases can be. It is an enlightening window into the power of desperation that facing a cancer diagnosis can create, and the false hope that misguided or uncaring gurus can sell.

, so you would think that she had enough medical expertise to at least recognize rank quackery, but not when it came to her own health. At 50 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a serious and often terminal disease. She was scheduled for surgery to be followed by standard treatment, but at the last minute canceled the operation.

She had apparently fallen under the guile of a local cancer quack, Dennis Wayne Jensen, who claimed that he had successfully treated many cancers with something called black salve, including his own brain tumor, twice.

Lawson believed Jensen’s claims, and his assurances that he was curing her cancer. This convinced her to forgo standard treatment. Her significant other, Belinda Davies, reports that she begged and pleaded with Lawson to receive real treatment, but she would not listen.

Under Jensen’s ministrations, she became progressively more ill. The skin on her abdomen became bloated and started to break down from the black salve. Davies reports:

Literally above her pubic bone, all across her abdomen almost up to her rib cage, she was raw, mutilated bubbling flesh.

While she was obviously deteriorating, Jensen reassured her that she was being cured. Eventually toward the end, according to Davies, Jensen simply stopped returning her calls. On April 6th Lawson collapsed at home, she was rushed to the hospital and died later that night.

Black salve

Black salve is a common name given to a number of escharotic agents. These are caustic agents that are meant to kill cancer cells. They do indeed kill some cancers (although not all), but also kill healthy cells. It kills cancer like acid would, by indiscriminately eating away all tissue.

This alternative medicine snake oil is curious because it is meant to burn away the cancer, which is one of the standard CAM criticisms of mainstream cancer treatment (cut, burn, and poison). The CAM narrative is versatile, however – black salve is different because (wait for it) it’s “natural”.

Proponents play the “natural” card as if it were a magic wand. They then claim that black salve magically does not affect healthy cells, promotes healing, and leaves no scars behind. They make these claims not only without evidence, but in the face of obvious counter-evidence. Black salve simply burns away flesh, leaving scars and holes in its wake. You can see the disturbing evidence for yourself via .

There isn’t much published about black salve and other escharotic agents, but what is published is largely negative. :

Based upon an analysis of in vitro constituent cytotoxicity, in vivo post black salve histology, and experience with Mohs paste, black salve is likely to possess normal tissue toxicity with some cancer cell lines being relatively resistant to its effects.

That is some understatement – “normal tissue toxicity.”

Regulation

While we are not an overtly political blog, we do generally agree that there should be some quality control in health care. Most people agree with that basic sentiment, but it does depend greatly on how the question is asked. If you ask people – should untrained practitioners be allowed to practice medicine, giving untested and potentially harmful treatments to clients with serious medical disease? – most people would say no. But if you ask – should patients have the freedom to seek any treatment they wish? – the answer flips to yes, even if in practice these are the same thing.

But in the end, “health care freedom,” “right to try,” or “alternative medicine” are just different ways of eroding the standard of care and remove protections for patients.

This case is happening in Australia, which actually has been improving their protections in recent years. The Health Complaints Commissioner has started an investigation into Jensen and issued an interim order for him to stop practicing medicine while the investigation is ongoing.

Jensen’s response was completely predictable:

Jensen, however, insists black salve “works” and is not an approved mainstream treatment because pharmaceutical companies can’t make any money out of it.

“They don’t want black salve on the market because it cures cancer,” he said in an interview with Fairfax Media on Monday.

They really don’t have many cards in their deck, and they just play them over and over – Big Pharma, all-natural, health care freedom.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Private-investigator-detective Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, , and the author of the , 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 has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.