An horrific case of natural health treatment of cancer

By Grant Jacobs 08/03/2010

Some of my local readers will have seen last night Lorelei Mason of TVNZ (Television New Zealand) present an horrific case of an iridiologist treating a skin cancer on the scalp which went on to invade the patient’s skull, eventually requiring major surgery.

(Source: wikipedia.)
(Source: wikipedia.)

You can read a text account of this news presentation, with comments from readers, or view the TV presentation on-line. (If you are viewing the video, you will need to wait for the advertisement to complete. Those squeamish about viewing exposed brains, may wish to avoid the appropriate parts of the video.)

Dr. Swee Tan, interviewed in the presentation, says that natural health practitioners ought to be registered. Some commenters offer that registration will not solve the problem.

My own thoughts, as a non-medical person-on-the-street, are that in one sense registration might legitimise the more moderate use of ’remedies’ like iridology, which grates given that many, if not most, of these remedies are nonsense under any use, but on the other hand registration offers some control over the worst extremes of misuse by obligating practitioners to adhere to guidelines.

Despite my unease at giving practices that lack evidential support credibility, my initial thoughts are that Swee Tan’s suggestion makes some sense: clients approaching someone offering medical remedies–of any kind–should have some assurance that the practitioner is being held to at least some basic responsibilities and at least some basic level of education in medicine. Ideally I would like to see unsound ‘natural remedy’ practices gone, but realistically this is unlikely to happen any time soon. Registration might be a good compromise in the meantime. Personally, I would like to see these guidelines also include some level of control over use of remedies that are not backed by evidence.

Quackwatch regards iridology as nonsense. (This site also contains the confessions of a former iridologist.)

For those wanting a more formal approach, a short, readable medical review of the evidence for iridology is available free on-line (Archives of Ophthalmology: Ernst 118(1)120-121, 2000). None of the controlled, investigator-masked studies found supported iridology. The final two paragraphs are worth quoting:

Might iridology be doing any harm? Waste of money and time are two obvious undesired effects. The possibility of false-positive diagnoses, ie, diagnosing–and subsequently treating–conditions that did not exist in the first place, seems more serious. The real problem, however, might be false-negative diagnoses: someone may feel unwell, go to an iridologist, and be given a clean bill of health. Subsequently, this person could be found to have a serious disease. In such cases, valuable time for early treatment (and indeed lives) can be lost through the use of iridology. No data are available on how frequently such problems occur. Thus no firm judgments are possible as to the damage done by iridology in real life.

In conclusion, few controlled studies with masked evaluation of diagnostic validity have been published. None have found any benefit from iridology. As iridology has the potential for causing personal and economic harm, patients and therapists should be discouraged from using it.

[My emphasis added.]

Perhaps we might add to the author’s list of harms: when an iridologist continues to treat a serious illness rather than referring their client to a medical practice?

The case Mason presents is a clear illustration of a source of harm in using natural remedies that has been raised in the context of other remedies on Sciblogs (2 links): delaying medical help. In some circumstances this delay will allow an illness to progress to a stage that it requires major treatment that could have been avoided, or delay it too long so that it cannot be effectively treated.


I am not a medical practitioner. The views expressed here are only opinions.

Other articles on Code for Life:

137 years of Popular Science back issues, free

The inheritance of face recognition (should you blame your parents if you can’t recognise faces?)

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Tracking disease and human migration through genetics

Positive encouragement for vaccination

0 Responses to “An horrific case of natural health treatment of cancer”

  • My aunt paid the ultimate price of using a ‘natural remedy’ to treat a manageable condition – she died! She had symptoms of bloating, water retention, lethargy, dry skin, poor nail condition, to name but a few. Her herbal naturopath-cum-quack doctor prescribed violet flower water, which she took for several years, right up until the day she slipped into a coma. My aunt had undiagnosed underactive thyroid, a condition that is rife throughout my family and for which most of us are treated. Some will say that my aunt should have had the good sense to go to a proper medical doctor (and they have a point: she should have known better – she was an educated woman who worked as an agricultural economist for the World Health Organisation). On the other hand, the quack doctor should have seen that her “treatment” was having no effect and should have referred her to someone else. Instead, my aunt died of miliary TB, which she had contracted in India as a child and that had lain dormant, waiting for her immune system to deteriorate to such a stage that it could take hold. It gave the pathologists one heck of a puzzle to sort out!
    In short, quack doctors – it’s a load of nonsense and any kind of regulation should be encouraged, if only to mitigate the damage they can do and so that they know they are being checked.

  • Thanks for sharing that Anna.

    It’s pretty amazing that there is no control (e.e. registration) on these people given that other people’s health is potentially at risk.

    I’d like to see registration, too, but also for some pressure placed on them to work with remedies that have some evidence supporting their use.

  • Leave your comment here…
    First off, what does iridology have to do with cancer treatment? Nothing.. It’ s the science of iris analysis and has nothing to do with treatment of Cancer. This story is poorly written.

    The clinical studies debunking iridology were accomplished by individuals who made their whole life debunking any natural medicine for a living. If you search a little harder on the web and try using the word ‘iridodiagnostics’, you will find several studies from Russia that show very positive results in diagnosing certain conditions..

    Funny how conventional medicine errors kill over half a million people a year but if one dies under the care of a naturopathic doctors, they should be burned at the stake!

    And the World Health Organization? They have lost all credibility in most intelligent peoples ‘eyes’..

  • Daprof – from Grant’s article, & with reference to your statement concerning ‘positive results’ from Russia: In conclusion, few controlled studies with masked evaluation of diagnostic validity have been published. None have found any benefit from iridology. As iridology has the potential for causing personal and economic harm, patients and therapists should be discouraged from using it.

    You ask, What does iridology have to do with cancer treatment? If you’ve read Grant’s article thoroughly you’d see that it’s not him conflating the two: an iridologist was purporting to treat a cancerous lesion. I agree, the practitioner had no legitimate place in this. But I’d go further – there is no plausible mechanism by which iridology can work. There is good evidence that some diseases can be diagnosed by looking into the eye – part of my excellent optometrist’s regular checks are of my retina, because things like diabetes can show up there via changes in the retinal capillaries. But iridology it ain’t. Doing your recommended search takes me to a number of CAM sites, not to reputable, properly designed & controlled, peer reviewed trials of this technique. (Remember, if this stuff actually worked it would have become part of ‘normal’ medical practice. The fact that this hasn’t happened, speaks volumes.

  • While iridology is a diagnostic tool (an unsound one) rather than a remedy, my understanding is that the practitioner diagnosed the cyst as innocent and didn’t pick up that something serious was afoot until relatively late. It would be unsurprising to find that her diagnosis that the cyst was “benign” included used iridology. The practitioner is an iridologist after all…

    It serves as an opportunity to point out the dangers of using an unsound diagnostic “tool” such as iridology and more generally that use of unskilled, unregistered, “natural health” practitioners is unwise. Part of the context of this post is that previous articles here at sciblogs here have raised the question of “what’s the harm” of “natural health” practices. It’s clearer if you read the article in the context of these earlier posts (linked in the final paragraph of the article).

    The author of the study I cited is from the Department of Complementary Medicine, University of Exeter. If anything he is more likely to support “complementary medicine” than most, should evidence warrants that. He draws on a range of other studies; the authors of these studies are exceptionally likely to spend their lives “debunking any natural medicine for a living.” They include ophthalmologists who are unlikely to have an interest outside of their field, for example. The studies include giving iridologists opportunities to show their “skills.” The paper is available free, anyone can check it for themselves.

    I made no mention of the WHO so I have no idea why you are trying to throw brickbats their way here.

  • You use this case as an example, yet this case has in fact been grossly misreported. The practitioner in this case was in fact told by the patient that she had seen a doctor and that the doctor had told her there was nothing they could do. The practitioner actually repeatedly told the patient and her family that she needed to see a doctor but she refused. this is not about natural practitioners being regulated it was about an individual’s choice that went wrong so she needs someone to blame. perhaps her daughter should have tried harder to get her to a doctor, or perhaps she should have called 111 or called a doctor to come and see her mother. The practitioner in this case has over thirty years training and experience in natural medicine.

  • MNL, I disagree. While the patient does seem to have been rather illinformed, the natural “health practitioner” must also bear some of the responsibility. If she had referred the patient to her GP sooner, or refused to treat her with natural remedies, it might have ended better. The fact that the natural “health practitioner” didn’t realise the severity of the problem (treating the patient for a whole year while the cancer spread) speaks volumes about her lack of medical knowledge. When someone claims to be a health professional, when they take your money in return for treatments, when you put your trust in them, then they must bear some of the responsibility when things go wrong.

  • MNL, (written before DrMike’s reply; posted unaltered save for minor edits)

    My article was written about an interview presented in early March (still available on-line), not the one recently screened on 60 Minutes a few days ago, which I suspect is what has prompted your comment. (I would draw other readers attention to the ~50 day “gap” between MNL’s comment and the previous one.)

    Regards of if the practitioner advised the patient to see a doctor or not (which I don’t believe was raised in the interview I referred to*), I believe a key point — if not the key point — that the news item that I cited to was trying to make was that the practitioner did not refer the patient on. The practitioner indicated (in the telephone interview) they thought this the family’s responsibility.

    My recollection is that the more recent 60 Minutes documentary asked both parties about the advice to see a doctor, i.e. both sides’ views were presented. If you have a problem with how they presented this, I would suggest you take that up with them.

    I will say, though, that what struck me about the more recent 60 Minutes documentary was the practitioner’s statement to the effect that “you have to go along with what they want.” (If I recall correctly, she repeated words to this effect several times.) It came across to me as disowning responsibility. I can’t imagine a registered doctor doing the same in the equivalent situation.

    A key point of being a specialist, of any kind, is that you have have the specialist knowledge needed to provide the service you offer and the responsibility that comes with carrying knowledge that your client can’t be expected to have or judge on their own. It is working in bad faith to offer services you know cannot (reasonably) deliver. In the case of the health professions, I would like think that this goes further and the practitioner is, or should be, obliged to refer the patient on if they are unable met their needs.

    Not referring the patient on to me suggests a need for registration. As a consumer I would want this from a health specialist who found themselves in the position of not being able to serve a patient’s needs themselves.

    *They do cover the daughter asking her mother to.

  • “I will say, though, that what struck me about the more recent 60 Minutes documentary was the practitioner’s statement to the effect that “you have to go along with what they want.” (If I recall correctly, she repeated words to this effect several times.) It came across to me as disowning responsibility. I can’t imagine a registered doctor doing the same in the equivalent situation.”

    Mmmm, I could name a retired doctor who said exactly that to me just a few months ago.

  • My uncle died from gangrene using a drug called Invokana given to him by his doctor. So I supposed people are damn either way. Now I hear the drug has caused gangrene of the genitals and other body parts. I loved my uncle why didn’t his doctor warn our family about this drug my uncle suffered so much at the hands of doctors before he died they cut off his left leg then wanted to cut oft his right left from gangrene from the meds they prescribed it is hard to trust your doctors now a days.

  • @RACHEL,

    I presume your uncle wasn’t in New Zealand. Canagliflozin (Invokana) is an expensive drug used to treat type 2 diabetes overseas; it is not listed on the Pharmaceutical Schedule in New Zealand.

    Canagliflozin has a known increased incidence of gangrene, especially of the great toe.

    But, since you know of that increased incidence of gangrene from canagliflozin, you will also have read about and know that there is already a high incidence of gangrene with untreated or poorly controlled diabetes. It’s just one of the reasons why we try to control/treat diabetes.

    Most leg amputations in NZ are a result of either diabetes, tobacco, or both. Trauma, infection and cancer are lesser causes. Side effects of medications are almost never a cause.

  • Hi Rachel,

    My condolences for your loss, but, if you don’t mind me pointing it out, it’s a long way from the question at hand. The case I referred to is an example of someone who recognised they were out of their depth, but didn’t refer the patient on. (I wasn’t impressed with the findings of the subsequent hearing either.)

    It’s not about warning of risks or not (these may not have been known at the time?), or even the balance of risk v reward that all treatments are to varying degrees, but about a practitioner that continued and didn’t refer the patient on despite knowing what they were ‘treating’ was more than they could cope with. To me that’s deeply callous and thoroughly unprofessional.