Farrah Fawcett died today following a relapse of the anal cancer that she battled for the past three years.   I’m wondering what effect the high profile death will have on cancer awareness and the use of “alternative” therapies, in particular.  I’m not optimistic.

From what I have been able to gather, she was first diagnosed in Sep 2006 and following regimen of standard therapies, was declared cancer-free in Feb 2007.  A few months later doctors discovered a small polyp during a routine exam, and apparently she sought “alternative” treatment in Germany this time around.  I have been unable to determine exactly what the treatment was, although it’s been reported that it consisted of a combination of chemotherapy and natural supplements.

We don’t know what the specific treatment was, but we do know that it was not effective.  We’ll never know whether the “alternative” approach would have saved her life if she tried it first.  (I suspect not since natural supplements have no clinical record of curing cancer.)  Also, we’ll never know if the relapse would have been successfully treated by physicians using the latest FDA-approved, science-based treatments.  We won’t ever know those answers, but I do know that there will be loads of people claiming to.

I am concerned that alt-med proponents will be given too much credibility when they make dubious claims about Farrah’s cancer.  In an effort to be ‘fair’, or due to an outright anti-science, anti-pharma,or anti-establishment bias, media outlets may give them a pass without challenging their assertions.  There will be apologies for why the follow-up “alternative” treatments didn’t work.  There will be people saying that she should have gone to Germany in the first place.  I have no doubt that people will claim, without hesitation, that she “would be here today IF ONLY…”  There will be people condemning the FDA for not approving more natural, homeopathic, eastern, herbal, and other magical energy theories.  These people are always out there but in this case, I fear that they will have a louder voice than those promoting science-based treatments.

Oncologists know that they can’t say for certain that she would have responded better to traditional treatments.  They will say things like: “She may have responded favorably to another course of chemo and radiation”, or “Based upon years of data and case histories of similar patients, her cancer would have likely gone back into remission.”  It doesn’t make good television sound bites, but that’s all they can say.  They are bound by medical ethics and the current state of medical knowledge.  There are no guarantees.  No magic potions.  No absolutes in medicine.

Many alt-med proponents however, have no need for tempering their opinions by examining evidence, understanding probabilities or even considering medical plausibility.  They have no reliance on the messy business of scientific research, epidemiological studies, or clinical trials.  A few anecdotes here, a few bits of  ancient wisdom there, and poof: a natural cure for what ails ya.  No need for chemicals, trips to the clinic, or side effects.  It’s a very appealing message, one which I fear will be delivered on the air waves, in print, and on the web.  Dare I even say the name Oprah?

So what will the coming hours, days, and weeks bring with regards to Farrah’s cancer, her treatment choices, and her ultimate passing?  I do hope that my instincts are wrong, but I am not optimistic…