Kat Arney: from the fire drill to snake oil

Dr Kat Arney is an ex-scientist and works as a Science Information Officer at Cancer Research UK , writing about the charity’s work and often appearing in the media. She writes for their Science Update blog, and produces and presents the Cancer Research UK podcast. In her spare time, she is a freelance science writer, and co-presents the Naked Scientists. And in the rest of her spare time she is a musician, playing in several bands. She rarely sleeps.

There are two ways to answer the question “why is science important?”. Firstly, there’s the personal answer. Science is important to me because it fundamentally shapes the way I think about the world, it’s the way I make sense of things, it’s the fuel that fires my curiosity and passion, and it’s the basis of my career (very important in order to maintain my shoe habit…). And science is a way to marvel at the world, to make sense of the complexity of life and the nature of the stars without taking away from their glory. I find it awe-inspiring to know that the universe came into being according to laws and concepts that we have the privilege of being able to uncover through scientific endeavour.

Secondly, science is of vital importance in the field in which I work. Cancer is not a modern disease - it has been with us since we were grunting primates. And for millennia, people have tried to understand and treat it. Ancient Egyptian and Greek writings talk about cancer and primitive treatments (the Egyptian “fire drill” sounds particularly gruesome).

For centuries, cancer remained an untreatable killer, unless the surgeon’s knife could get to it in time. People tried their best to beat it - theories abounded about humours, parasites and witchcraft etc., etc., etc., followed by slightly more enlightened (but nonetheless incorrect) ideas about pH imbalance, coffee enemas and antineoplastons etc., etc., etc.

Thanks to modern medicine and improved public health, cancer survival is rising. Ten-year survival rates have doubled over the last three decades. It’s true that there is still much to be done - for example, survival rates for pancreatic, lung and oesophageal cancers remain pitifully low - but in many cases cancer is no longer the incurable “big C” that it once was.

These advances have only been possible thanks to years of painstaking scientific research by organisations like Cancer Research UK. But where there is human suffering, there are quacks and snake-oil sellers waiting to exploit our misery. Some are well-meaning but misguided, while others are just out for a fast buck from vulnerable people.

Without science, how would we know for sure that these “miracle cures” were not working because they are hokum? We’d still be sticking herbs up our bottoms, waving crystals around, putting people in useless contraptions or eating mistletoe in a misguided attempt to cure cancer. And if the treatment didn’t work, it would be because we hadn’t done it right, hadn’t paid enough, or it was a conspiracy wrought by “the medical establishment” (insert your hand-waving explanation of choice here).

Science tells us whether a treatment actually works or not. By studying the molecular nuts and bolts of cancer cells, we can understand whether the proposed mechanism of action is feasible. We can test it in laboratory models. We can use our knowledge of physics, biology and chemistry to design better treatments, and we can test them in clinical trials. The randomised controlled trial is probably one of the greatest methods ever invented for dispatching quackery. It’s no surprise that so few snake-oil sellers are willing to submit their wares to its statistically significant charms.

Without science, we would still be living in the times of bad humours and fire drills. We wouldn’t be able to distinguish beneficial treatments from ineffectual (or potentially dangerous) ones. And we certainly wouldn’t be able to make progress in beating a disease that claims the lives of one in four people living in the UK today.

If the “big C” should come for me in the future, I know I’m going to be eternally grateful to the generations of scientists that have probed, prodded, tested and trialled their way to effective cancer treatments. And if or when the treatment stops working, then I’ll also be grateful for the research that’s been done into palliative care and pain relief.

It’s so tempting to throw ourselves into the arms of the quacks and their “miracle cures” - some of whom misappropriate the language of science as a lab-coat disguise of respectability. But without the benefit of scientific evidence, it is a waste of time, money, trust, energy and, above all, hope.

And that’s why science is important.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and not those of Cancer Research UK.

One Comment

  1. Posted January 9, 2009 at 8:22 PM | Permalink | Reply


    As a 15 year survivor of multiple myeloma, conventional oncology did nothing for me but leave me with many short and long term side effects.


    In 9/97 my oncologist told me that "nothing more could be done for me." In 11/97 I began antineoplaston therapy. Each month I used an mri to watch my lesions shrink and disappear. By 4/99 I was in complete remission where I am today.

    People come to the website beating-myeloma.org to read and comment each day- conventional oncology sometimes will put survivors in complete remission but does not more often than not.

    I've learn through painful experience that the health system that you refer to- "generations of scientists that have probed, prodded, tested and trialled their way to effective cancer treatments..." is filled with conflict of interest, profit motives and problems just as serious as the quackery that you refer to.

    Antineoplaston therapy, supplementation like curcumin and resveritrol, detox therapy, these are the therapies that have kept me in complete remission. Not the peripheral blood stem cell transplant that I underwent in 12/95.


    In order for "science to be important" where cancer is concerned it needs to focus on health care rather than disease care.

    David Emerson

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