Why Did Doctors Keep Prescribing Cancer?

We’ve known about the role of estrogen in breast cancer going back to the 1800s, when surgical removal of the ovaries seemed to help in some cases. Ovaries were said to send out “mysterious” influences to the rest of the body, which were identified as estrogen in 1923. The medical profession jumped on this discovery and started injecting menopausal women by the thousands, and it was said that “[t]he ‘shot’ gives a ‘respectable’ hook on which to hang the visit to the doctor…” Soon, there were pills and patches, and medical journals like the Journal of the American Medical Association regaled doctors with ads I feature in my video How Did Doctors Not Know About the Risks of Hormone Therapy? on how they can “help the women to happiness by simply prescribing estrogen” and, “[w]hen women outlive their ovaries…,” there is Premarin.

As far back as the 1940s, concerns were raised that this practice might cause breast cancer, noting it would have been nice to figure this out before we started dosing women en masse. But breast cancer risk didn’t seem to matter as much, because heart disease was the number-one killer of women, reviews concluded, and because women taking hormones appeared to have lower heart attack rates, which would outweigh any additional breast cancer. However, women taking estrogen tended to be of a higher socioeconomic class, exercised more, and engaged in other healthy lifestyle changes like consuming more dietary fiber and getting their cholesterol checked. So, maybe that’s why women taking estrogen appeared to be protected from heart disease. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the drugs themselves. Despite the medical profession’s “enthusiasm for estrogen replacement therapy,” only a randomized clinical trial could really resolve this question. We would need to divide women into two groups, with half getting the hormones and half getting a placebo, and follow them out for a few years. There was no such study…until the 1990s, when the Women’s Health Initiative study was designed.

Wait a second. Why did it take the bulk of a century to decide to definitively study the safety of something prescribed to millions of women? Perhaps because there had never been a female director of the National Institutes of Health until then. “Just three weeks after being named NIH Director in 1991, [Bernadine Healy] went before Congress to announce, ‘We need a moon walk for women.’ That ‘moon walk’ took the form of the Women’s Health Initiative, the most definitive, far-reaching clinical trial of women’s health ever undertaken in the United States.”

The bombshell landed in summer 2002. There was so much more invasive breast cancer in the hormone users that they were forced to stop the study prematurely. What about heart disease? Wasn’t that supposed to balance things out? The women didn’t just have more breast cancer—they had more heart attacks, more strokes, and more blood clots to their lungs.

The news that women treated with hormone replacement therapy “experienced higher rates of breast cancer, cardiovascular disease, and overall harm has rocked women and physicians across the country.” Estrogen started out as the most prescribed drug in America before the study, but, after, the number of prescriptions dropped immediately and, within a year, so did the incidence of breast cancer in the United States.

The most important question about this story is why were we all so surprised? There had been “decades of repeated warnings” about the risks of cancer. In fact, the reason breast cancer patients had so much trouble suing the pharmaceutical company was that “the drugs have contained warning labels for decades.” And, with that disclosure, surely any reasonable physician would have included it in their risk and benefit discussions with their patients, right? It’s like the warning labels on packs of cigarettes. If you get lung cancer now, you should have known better. And, so, if you were on hormone replacement therapy and got breast cancer, don’t blame the drug company. They warned you about the risks, right there in the fine print.

Why didn’t more doctors warn their patients? Even after the study came out, millions of prescriptions continued to be dispensed. That’s a lot of cancer in our patients we caused, wrote one doctor. “How long will it take us to discard the financial gains, to admit that we are harming many of our patients, and to start changing our prescription habits?”

“Why did this practice continue in the face of mounting evidence of harm?” Well, it is a multibillion-dollar industry. “Despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, many physicians still believe that estrogenic hormones have overall health benefits,” a “non-evidence-based perception [that] may be the result of decades of carefully orchestrated corporate influence on medical literature.” Indeed, “[d]ozens of ghostwritten reviews and commentaries published in medical journals and supplements were used to promote unproven benefits and downplay harms of menopausal hormone therapy…” PR companies were paid to write the articles that were then passed off as having been written by some expert.

What now? “Gynecologists must switch allegiance from eminence-based to evidence-based medicine.” In other words, they must consider what the science says and not just what some so-called expert says. It’s been said that the “current culture of gynecology encourages the dissemination of health advice based on advertising rather than science.”

“Women were placed in the way of harm by their physicians, who acted as unsuspecting patsies for the pharmaceutical companies.” If we really wanted to prevent heart attacks in women, simple lifestyle behaviors can eliminate more than 90 percent of heart attack risk. So, instead of being Big Pharma’s pawns, “recommending a healthful diet, increased exercise, and smoking cessation would truly benefit women’s health.”

The whole Premarin debacle speaks to the importance of putting purported therapies to the test (see, for example, Do Vitamin D Supplements Help with Diabetes, Weight Loss, and Blood Pressure?), as well as to the power of Big Pharma (Eliminating Conflicts of Interest in Medical Research), medical community collusion (American Medical Association Complicity with Big Tobacco), and my most series on mammograms.

What about Plant-Based Bioidentical Hormones and Soy Phytoestrogens for Menopause Hot Flashes? Check out the videos to find out.

In general, patients (and doctors) tend to wildly overestimate the efficacy of pills and procedures. See Why Prevention Is Worth a Ton of Cure and The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs.

Medical care, in general, may be the third leading cause of death in the United States. See How Doctors Responded to Being Named a Leading Killer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

A highly effective, cheap, easy-to-use, safer treatment for heavy periods

Ginger is most famous for its role in preventing and alleviating nausea and vomiting. There are now so many studies that there are reviews of reviews. Just a half teaspoon of powdered ginger “is associated with a 5-fold likelihood of improvement” in morning sickness in early pregnancy. (See my video Natural Treatments for Morning Sickness for more on this.) Ginger has also been shown to help with motion sickness, improve postoperative nausea and vomiting, prevent antiretroviral-induced nausea and vomiting during HIV treatment, and was said to be a “miracle” against chemotherapy-induced vomiting.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of ginger for breast cancer chemotherapy, chemo-induced vomiting was relieved in all phases—the acute phase within 24 hours of the chemo, two to three days after, and even before chemo sessions with what’s known as anticipatory vomiting. (After a few chemo treatments, the body knows what’s coming and starts throwing up at just the thought of the next session.) Anticipatory nausea can’t seem to be controlled by drugs, even the fancy new ones that can cost 10,000 times more than ginger, which comes in at about two pennies per dose and may work even better in some ways.

Ginger can also help with pain. One-eighth of a teaspoon of powdered ginger, which costs just one penny, was found to work as well as the migraine headache drug Imitrex, without the side effects. (See my video Ginger for Migraines for more.)

Speaking of pain, my video Ginger for Nausea, Menstrual Cramps, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome discusses that it may also be as effective as ibuprofen for alleviating menstrual cramps. Painful periods are exceedingly common and can sometimes cause severe suffering yet have been “virtually ignored” by pain management researchers and practitioners. Four randomized controlled trials, however, have been published on ginger for menstrual pain, and all four showed significant benefit when ginger was taken during the first few days of periods. Effective doses ranged from about a third of a teaspoon a day to a full teaspoon a day, but because they all seemed to work, one might as well start out with the penny-a-day dose.

As a side benefit, ginger can dramatically reduce heavy flow, which is one of the most common gynecological problems for young women. We know there are pro-inflammatory foods that may contribute to heavy menstrual bleeding, so how about trying an anti-inflammatory food like ginger? Heavy menstrual bleeding is defined as more than a third of a cup (80 milliliters), but all the study subjects started out much higher than that. Just an eighth teaspoon of powdered ginger three times a day starting the day before their period cut their flow in half, and it seemed to work better each month they tried it, providing a highly effective, cheap, easy-to-use, safer treatment for menstrual blood loss and pain.

So, ginger works for migraines and menstrual cramps, but just because it may be effective for many types of pain doesn’t mean it’s necessarily efficacious for all pain. For example, what about intestinal cramps? Is ginger effective for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)? The answer is yes, dropping IBS severity by more than 25 percent. But, so did the placebo. So, the real answer is no—it is not effective for the treatment of IBS, yet “[g]inger is one of the most commonly used herbal medicines for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).” Silly people, don’t they know it doesn’t work any better than a sugar pill? Or, from another perspective, are they smart for using something that offers relief 53 percent of the time and doesn’t risk the adverse effects of some of the drugs with which doctors may harm one person for every three they help?

If placebos are so safe and effective, should doctors prescribe them? I discuss the pros and cons in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?.

What does work for IBS? See my videos:

What else can women do to make their periods more tolerable? See:

For more on ginger, check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Reversing Massive Obesity With Diet

Dr. Walter Kempner introduced the first comprehensive dietary program to treat chronic kidney disease and, in doing so, also revolutionized the treatment of other disorders, including obesity. Kempner was Professor Emeritus of Medicine at Duke, where he came up with the so-called rice diet, which basically consisted of rice, sugar, fruit, and fruit juices, was extremely low in sodium and fat, and included no animal fat, no cholesterol, and no animal protein. The sugar was added as a source of calories so people wouldn’t lose too much weight. But some people need to lose weight, so he started treating obese patients with a lower calorie version of the diet, which I discuss in my Can Morbid Obesity Be Reversed Through Diet? video.

He published an analysis of 106 patients who each lost at least 100 pounds. Why 106? Kempner simply picked the last 100 people who lost more than 100 pounds, and, by the time he finished reviewing their charts, 6 more had joined the so-called century club. Average weight loss among them was 141 pounds. “This study demonstrates that massively obese persons can achieve marked weight reduction, even normalization of weight, without hospitalization, surgery, or pharmacologic intervention…[O]ne important fact to be gained from this study is that, despite the misconception to the contrary, massive obesity is not an uncorrectable malady. Weight loss can be achieved, massive obesity can be corrected, and it can be done without drastic intervention.”

Well, Kempner’s rice diet is pretty drastic, so definitely don’t try this at home. In fact, the rice diet is dangerous. It’s so restrictive that it may cause serious electrolyte imbalances, unless the patient is carefully medically supervised with frequent blood and urine lab testing. Dangerous? Says who? Said the world’s number-one advocate for the rice diet: Dr. Kempner himself.

The best, safe approximation of the diet, meaning low in sodium and without fat, protein, or cholesterol from animals, would be a vitamin B12-fortified diet centered around whole, unprocessed plant foods. However, even a medically supervised rice diet could be considered un-drastic compared to procedures like getting one’s internal organs stapled or rearranged, wiring someone’s jaws shut, or even undergoing brain surgery.

Attempts have been made to destroy the parts of the brain associated with the sensation of hunger, by irradiation or going in through the skull and burning them out. “It shows how ineffective most simpler forms of treatment are that anyone should think it reasonable to produce irreversible intracranial lesions in very obese patients.” The surgeons defended these procedures, however, explaining that their “justification in attempting the operation is, of course, the very poor results of conventional therapy in gross obesity, and the dark prognosis, mental and physical, of the uncorrected condition.” In reply, a critic countered, “Such strong feelings [about how dark the prognosis is] run the risk of being conveyed to the patient, to the effect of masking the operative dangers and steam-rolling the patient’s approval.” The surgeon replied, “If any ‘steamrolling’ is taking place, it comes rather from obese patients who sometimes threaten suicide unless they are accepted for experimental surgical treatment.”

As of 2013, the American Medical Association officially declared obesity a disease, by identifying the enormous humanitarian impact of obesity as requiring the medical care and attention of other diseases. Yet the way we treat diseases these days involves drugs and surgery. Anti-obesity drugs have been pulled from the market again and again after they started killing people—an unrelenting fall of the pharmacological treatment of obesity.

The same has happened with obesity surgeries. The procedure Kempner wrote about was discontinued because of the complication of causing irreversible cirrhosis of the liver. Current procedures include various reconfigurations of the digestive tract. Complications of surgery appear to occur in about 20 percent of patients, and nearly one in ten of which may be death. In one of the largest studies, 1.9 percent of patients died within a month of the surgery. “Even if surgery proves sustainably effective, the need to rely on the rearrangement of [our] anatomy as an alternative to better use of feet and forks [that is, diet and exercise] seems a societal travesty.”

For more on Kempner and his rice diet, see my videos:

Learn more on the surgical approach in Reversing Diabetes with Surgery and Stomach Stapling Kids.

And, for more on weight, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: