Yes to life Chief Executive responds to criticism


In November 2014, myself and two other Merseyside Skeptics Society members attended a seminar hosted by the charity Yes to Life in Manchester. Yes to Life is an organisation that offers advice to people diagnosed with cancer with a focus on “integrative therapies” – that is, a combination of conventional therapies with alternative therapies including diet, detox and lifestyle modification. Despite the latter being supported by little to no evidence, the talks at the seminar suggested a scientific basis for a number of alternative therapies to an audience of cancer sufferers and their loved ones.

I wrote of my concern about this for the Guardian Science Blog, which elicited an email response from Sue De Cesare, Executive Director of Yes to Life. I reproduce the email in full below:

 

From: Sue De Cesare
Date: 8 December 2014 at 10:08
Subject: Yes to Life Seminar Manchester
To: “alice.howarth@merseysideskeptics.org.uk”

Dear Alice

I have read with interest your blog in the Guardian.  What a shame you didn’t approach one of the Yes to Life team to share your concerns, but instead chose to write a poorly informed blog, fraught with misinformation.

For example, with regard to the ‘facts’ you write about sugar, it would seem you are not abreast of the latest science. Prof Mina Bissell is Distinguished Scientist at Life Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (http://www2.lbl.gov/LBL-Programs/lifesciences/BissellLab/MJB%20CV%208-20-2013.pdf) and is the only biologist with this rank. She has studied the impact of glucose on cancer and her conclusions are clear and far-reaching. Please see – http://www.jci.org/articles/view/63146. So although your confident assertions on the mechanisms of cancer may tread the safe ground of outdated establishment views, they are not what people with cancer, who are struggling to find the best information they can get in order to stay alive, need to hear. They need the best science available, not the party line.

You write sweeping statements such as ‘Despite there being little or no evidence of efficacy for “integrative therapies” – which are meant to be combined with conventional therapies and include things like diet, detox and lifestyle modification – the talks suggested they have a scientific basis.’ You give absolutely no basis for this confident assertion, which is manifestly untrue, since there is now a wide and growing scientific basis confirming effectiveness and, typically, exceptional safety. It seems that again, you are simply unaware of the research.

You call lifestyle medicine ‘pseudoscience’. Are you unaware of the fact that in the US, all the major cancer centres now have an Integrative Oncology Department dispensing such ‘pseudoscience’. Why? Because they have the science that shows that it works – http://www.integrativeoncology-essentials.com/integrative-centers/

Patricia Peat, I’m sure, would happily supply you with all the evidence needed to support her claims regarding antioxidants in combination with orthodox treatments. She takes great care in assessing the science behind her public talks. I assume you see yourself as acting in the best interests of people suffering with cancer when you write such an article, but respectfully suggest that it is good to consult the science before you do, rather than just espousing an establishment view. This is not a debating society – there are real consequences of misinformation for people who are very sick. Science is a moving target, and few things are ‘true’ for ever. We are constantly dealing with new information, and if faced with the prospect of a lethal cancer, the very best we can hope for is the best and latest information. Perhaps, for the sake of those with cancer, you would take the trouble to read a slim new volume on just one antioxidant, Vitamin C, in relation to cancer, cancer side effects and cancer treatment side effects, along with its safety profile, before you publicly dismiss it as ‘quack medicine’ – http://www.springer.com/biomed/cancer/book/978-1-4939-1889-8.

I have to say I am shocked by your patronising view of the attendees at our seminar. You set yourself up as an ‘expert’ on cancer, sufficiently so to have an ‘overview’ of the expertise of our highly experienced speakers and to give them marks for their understanding of cancer, and at the same time you portray our audience as ‘vulnerable’ cancer patients who are pathetically ill informed in comparison to you. Did you take the time to find out whether this was really the case by speaking to them? In our experience, they are a highly motivated group of intelligent and well-informed people who are determined to stay alive for as long as possible, and in this many of them are astoundingly successful. These people are not dealing with academic theories. For them it is a matter of life and death.

If the results of cancer treatment in the UK were amongst the best on the planet, the drive and need for information on the broadest range of helpful approaches would probably still be there, but perhaps the situation would not be as desperate as it is. Given the wealth of the UK and the size of our health budget, the statistics are little less than tragic. Yes to Life does what it can to help those with cancer to find good quality, relevant information, to help them build a programme for themselves that they have confidence in. Given the lottery that cancer treatment is at present, no-one should be deprived of the opportunity to choose how they want to deal with their own health problems.

I am interested to hear what you feel about the matters I have raised above.

Regards

Sue De Cesare

Executive Director

Given that Sue had taken the time to write to me, I felt it a good opportunity to explain my concerns to her directly. My reply to Sue follows:

From: Alice Howarth <alice.howarth@merseysideskeptics.org.uk>
Date: 18 December 2014 at 17:22
Subject: Re: Yes to Life Seminar Manchester
To: Sue De Cesare

Dear Sue,

Many thanks for your email. I’m glad you were interested to read my blog for the Guardian.

I would appreciate if you could confirm your position on the 1939 Cancer Act before we get into the details of your criticisms? My concern with your seminar was the possibility of it breaking this act and local Trading Standards offices shared this concern. Will you be taking this into account and avoid future involvement in such seminars? Do you appreciate our concern?

I hope you understand that, as a PhD cancer researcher, I read plenty of articles relating to complementary, alternative and integrative medicine. As someone with a passion in cancer research I read articles from a myriad of sources and with varying levels of support and I will happily consider all evidence providing it is robust enough.

I can see you appreciate my article was written in the interests of patients. I hope you can reassure me with regards to my concerns in the interests of those patients.

Kind regards,

Alice.

Unfortunately, I have not heard anything further from Sue – should she take the time to answer the very real concerns I have outlined to her, I shall be sure to let you all know immediately.

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