Leading Article: Alternative cancer therapies redeemed

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The Independent Online
CANCER research, to which the public contributes so generously, is widely believed to be well organised and sensitive to the needs of a vulnerable group of patients. This is generally true. Yet the story of how Britain's two major cancer charities allowed complementary therapies to be unfairly damned is disillusioning. Incompetence was behind their failure to spot obvious flaws in research that suggested these therapies damaged patients. Only bloody-mindedness can explain the slowness of those charities to correct a mistake that has deeply distressed people already fearful of imminent death.

The focus of this error was the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, which has provided immeasurable support to hundreds of patients who have already had the best treatment the NHS can offer. An amateurish and since discredited study of the centre, published in 1990, was funded by the Cancer Research Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Yesterday, the Charity Commission condemned their slack supervision of that study and their failure to evaluate it prior to publication. Yet even now, more than three years later, the charities have not withdrawn the paper. They admit only an 'honest, scientific mistake'. It is time they offered a full retraction and apology.

The exposure of this high- handed behaviour is a triumph for patients and their unwillingness to let the scientific establishment cover up its failures. Had it not been for their determination, the public record might never have been set straight. Patients from Bristol are the first group to have campaigned successfully against a scientific trial. They have followed the lead of Aids campaigners in enhancing patient power.

Their victory is also the latest step towards relaxing the antagonism between orthodox and complementary medicine. Last summer, seven years after damning alternative approaches, the British Medical Association finally accepted their value. Now those who looked on gleefully as the Bristol centre was rubbished will have to consider complementary techniques with more dispassionate, unprejudiced eyes. Given conventional medicine's limited success in treating cancer, the arrogance of some practitioners in dismissing alternative methods is misplaced.

Yesterday's report is particularly important for women. As detailed today in the second part of our series on gene research, it will soon be possible to identify women with a genetic predisposition to breast and ovarian cancer. In practical terms a test will be offered only to women from families with a history of this disease. A woman at risk will then face the traumatic decision of whether to have her healthy breasts and womb removed to avoid cancer. Such women will need all the help possible from places like the Bristol centre, which has pioneered stress counselling, relaxation techniques and a controlled diet. For them, the rehabilitation of complementary therapies has come not a moment too soon.