Health: Should I be a guinea-pig?

A Question of Health
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I HAVE recently been diagnosed with cancer of the colon and I have been offered the chance to take part in a trial of a new form of chemotherapy. But I have to agree to letting a computer decide whether I get the new treatment, or none at all. How should I decide what to do?

The doctors and researchers who plan trials of new cancer treatments are trying to discover whether a new approach is better than an existing one. If the trial that you have been offered is comparing a new treatment with none at all, it is because the researchers genuinely do not know whether the new approach is better or worse than none at all. So although it may seem that a computer is determining any effective treatment, in fact it is choosing between two courses of action which are, as far as anyone knows, equally good.

If it becomes clear that the new treatment is better than none at all, the trial will be stopped, and you should be offered the new treatment. Discuss this with the doctors who are caring for you. It would be unethical for a clinical trial to offer you something that is known to be second- best.

IS THERE any virtue in breathing the fumes of friar's balsam?

Friar's balsam is a concoction of seven different substances with wonderful names such as balsam of Peru, angelica root and Siam benzoin resin. It has been used for at least 500 years as an aromatic inhalation for colds, sinusitis and bronchitis.

I have searched the scientific literature and have been unable to find any research into its effectiveness. It is usually mixed with very hot water and the combination of the fumes and the warm, moist air helps to liquefy mucus and other secretions in the nose and sinuses. Quite a few people have a skin allergy to balsam of Peru, and it is not uncommon to develop a rash on the face after inhaling friar's balsam.

I WAS a prisoner of war in the Far East and have been told of a condition known as strongyloidiasis which can remain dormant for many years. What are the symptoms?

Strongyloidiasis is a tropical intestinal infection caused by a tiny worm. It is possible to carry the infection for decades without knowing that you have it.

It can cause skin rashes, intestinal upsets and, occasionally, coughing, wheezing and lung symptoms. Blood tests and stool tests are used to make the diagnosis.

The symptoms of the disease can be very similar to the symptoms of a stomach ulcer.

Please send questions to A Question of Health, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; or

e-mail to health@ independent.co.uk. Dr Kavalier regrets that he cannot respond personally to questions

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