Miracle? What miracle?

Ann Treneman
Friday 08 May 1998 23:02

Headlines about cancer 'cures' are no comfort for people who are fighting the disease, writes

Ann Treneman

THERE are three things you can count on when it comes to news about cancer. The first is that the word "hope" will be in the headline and the second is that the word "breakthrough" will be in the first sentence. The third is that neither are probably true on the day in question.

So it has been with this week's "Hopes for Cancer Cure" headlines. The story that came out of Boston via the New York Times said that scientists want to start human trials with two "breakthrough" drugs that have been shown to eradicate all tumours in mice. The reports said trials may start "soon" but that seems to mean within a year. The cure itself is at least two years away.

One in three of us will get a form of the disease, so anything that hints of cure is news. But the drug companies have an interest here too. The mere suggestion that the Boston scientists wanted to start human trials saw the company which plans to market the drug increase its share value by $71 to $83 on the day of the report.

But what of the cancer sufferers? How do they react to the revelations of serial breakthroughs? Others see salvation and it's only human to think that somewhere between the lines lies the very cure for their cancer. The day after a cancer makes the news, the phones never stop ringing at Britain's 600 cancer charities. But perhaps a more common reaction is anger. As breast cancer survivor Gillian Hudson says: "It's all so simplified. Nothing in life is that simple."

Here is how she and two others with cancer reacted to the latest breakthrough news.


Aged 37, of Carshalton in Surrey, she was diagnosed last May with breast cancer. She had a partial mastectomy and did not have to have any radiotherapy or chemotherapy. She attends a support group at the Royal Marsden hospital.

"At first when you see the headline and it's like a new cancer drug, you feel quite uplifted and then you read it and find out that it has only been tested on mice. Then there was a quote later on in the article which said 'This is not going to help anybody who has cancer now'. It makes you quite angry, actually.

"The death of Linda McCartney was quite a horrific time for anybody with breast cancer. I've spoken to the people in my support group and we all found it very upsetting. The papers had said that she had beaten breast cancer but she obviously hadn't.

"Nobody really beats breast cancer, you live with breast cancer and it's a matter of how long you live with it.

"People had thought that if Linda McCartney could beat it, they could too. And then you read that she's died. Very distressing.

"I wish it were that they would discover a drug that would kill all cancers, but it doesn't work like that.

"They should report more realistically. The actual articles are balanced but a lot of people just take on board the headline.

"It's like my niece called me up and she said: 'Oh isn't it wonderful about that new drug. That means you'll be all right now.' I didn't have the heart to tell her: 'No it doesn't actually'.


The 52-year-old businessman, from Oxfordshire, was diagnosed with colon cancer last spring and underwent surgery, chemotherapy and a course at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre. The cancer has now spread to his liver and he has been told he has two months to live.

"I pursue all of the stories. I've been told that they can't do much for me in the conventional sense, so I am much more open to looking at other things. I went out to Italy for a week about three weeks ago to pursue this Professor Luigi di Bella who claims to have cured tens of thousands of patients. There have been lots of articles on him.

"We've probably looked quite seriously at 10 alternative treatments. We looked at a Russian therapy to do with using a protein in the umbilical cord but I was told it was $200,000 just to walk in the door.

"I heard about the news this week when a friend faxed me the article from the New York Times. I woke up and there was a seven page fax. She's a very old friend and she said: 'Giles, don't give up hope. Stay alive for a year because you never know, this just might work!' Another friend is trying to see if there is any chance that I can get on the clinical trials.

"The way I handle these stories is to try and go into action on it fast and then sort of leave it. I have to live very much in the present. I think my chances of getting well are much more than my chances of having some miracle cure in two years, so it doesn't really bother me, but it does interest me hugely."


The media commentator and Times columnist has written extensively about what it is like to have throat cancer. His book "C - Because Cowards Get Cancer Too" is out next month.

"I really did think that the press knew better by now than to run 'miracle cure for cancer' stories. How did I feel? My heart skipped a beat, I stopped what I was doing and sat down on the stairs and worked my way through the papers. What I wanted to read was that all my doctors had to do was to keep me going long enough to be around when the miracle is proven - even though I knew there is no possibility of this. Not because my doctors can't keep me going but because however high the share price rises to, no drug can do what the press claim for this drug.

"I admit that this is a difficult one for the press to deal with. 'New drug based on old theory may at some time in the future treat certain sorts of cancer' isn't the snappiest headline in the world.

"One of the real problems is not simply that people's hopes are raised unrealistically but that the NHS has to waste precious resources dealing with those hopes. The day after GPs surgeries around the land are filled with patients pleading for the new 'treatment'. In fact one GP I spoke to last time such a story broke said that what often happens is that the cancer patient's spouse or parent turns up for treatment for some minor illness - 'It's this splinter doctor; I think it's going septic' - and after the doctor has dealt with that pleads for the new treatment".

Cancer: the lab report

ACCORDING to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, it takes 15 years to bring an experimental drug to human patients. Only one in 1,000 compounds tested makes it into safety trials on humans; of those, only one in 20 is approved. Some recently mentioned "cures" are:

Glutathione S-transferase (GtSp)

What it does: It's an enzyme that, in mice, seems to help cells to detoxify themselves.

Who gets the money: The Imperial Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Research Campaign, which are funding the research.

Next step: To understand what GtSp does, and whether it has a direct human analogue.

Supporters say: "A single gene could be profoundly important in protecting us against cancer" - Prof Roland Wolf, University of Dundee.

Other views: "My concern is that the importance of the work and what we are trying to say is taken out of context" - Professor Wolf again (after widespread press coverage).

Endostatin and angiostatin.

What they do: Apparently, these proteins are secreted by tumours to stop other tumours growing.

Who gets the money: Entremed, based in Rockville, Maryland.

Next step: tests on humans.

Supporters say: "The most exciting cancer research in my lifetime" - James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA.

Other views: "The history of cancer research is littered with promised treatments that raised hopes, only for them to be dashed when the treatments were put to the test in humans" - James Watson (again), in a letter to the New York Times.

MDB, a drug cocktail of the growth hormone somatostatin, and retinoid, a vitamin A drug.

What it does: Supposedly encourages healthy cells to multiply.

Who gets the money: Dr di Bella, 86, charges pounds 200 a day for his treatment.

Next step: "Blind" tests, due to end in June.

Supporters say: "The drugs I use are non-toxic ... the patient does not suffer the side-effects of sickness, tiredness and loss of hair" - Dr di Bella.

Other views: "Conventional medicine cures four out of 10 people of cancer. Who can blame the other six for looking for an alternative solution?" - Professor Gordon McVie, Cancer Research Campaign.


What it does: nobody's sure.

Who gets the money: Dundee University.

Next step: Carry out research for five years.

Supporters say: "By learning about problem cells we hope we may be able to develop treatments that prevent cells becoming malignant." - Dr Julian Blow, team head.

Others say: it's far, far too soon to say.

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