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:

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:

Turmeric Curcumin Put to the Test for Inflammatory Bowel Disease

My video Striking with the Root: Turmeric Curcumin and Ulcerative Colitis tells the story how this amazing discovery was made, and how curcumin stacks up against pharmacological interventions.

Despite evidence going back 40 years that the turmeric spice component curcumin possesses significant anti-inflammatory activity, it wasn’t until 2005 that it was first tested on inflammatory bowel disease. Why did it take so long? Well, who’s going to fund such a study? Big Curry? Even without corporate backing, individual physicians from New York decided to ask the next five patients with ulcerative colitis who walked through their office doors to start curcumin supplements.

“Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a debilitating, chronic, relapsing-remitting [i.e., it comes and goes] IBD [inflammatory bowel disease] that afflicts millions of individuals throughout the world and produces symptoms that impair quality of life and ability to function.” As with most diseases, we have a bunch of drugs to treat people, but sometimes these medications can add to disease complications, most commonly nausea, vomiting, headaches, rash, fever, and inflammation of the liver, pancreas, and kidneys, as well as potentially wiping out our immune system and causing infertility. Most ulcerative colitis patients need to be on drugs every day for the rest of their lives, so we need something safe to keep the disease under control.

So how did those five patients do on the spice extract? Overall, all five subjects improved by the end of the study, and four of the five were able to decrease or eliminate their medications. They had “more formed stools, less frequent bowel movements, and less abdominal pain and cramping. One subject reported decreased muscle soreness, commonly felt after his exercise routine.” This, however, was what’s called an open-label study, meaning the patients knew they were taking something so some of the improvement may have just been the placebo effect. In 2013, another small open-label pilot study found encouraging results in a pediatric population, but what was needed was a larger scale, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

And, researchers obliged. They took a bunch of people with quiescent ulcerative colitis and gave them either turmeric curcumin along with their typical anti-inflammatory drugs, or a placebo and their drugs. In the placebo group, 8 out of 39 patients relapsed, meaning their disease flared back up. In the curcumin group, however, only 2 out of 43 relapsed, significantly fewer. And, relapse or not, clinically, the placebo group got worse, while the curcumin group got better. Endoscopically, which is objectively visualizing the inside of their colons, doctors saw the same thing: trends towards worse or better.

The results were stunning: a 5 percent relapse rate in the curcumin group compared with a 20 percent relapse rate in the conventional care group. It was such a dramatic difference that the researchers wondered if it was some kind of fluke. Even though patients were randomized to each group, perhaps the curcumin group just ended up being much healthier through some chance coincidence, so maybe it was some freak occurrence rather than curcumin that accounted for the results? So, the researchers extended the study for another six months but put everyone on the placebo to ensure the initial findings were not some aberration. The curcumin was stopped to see if that group would then start relapsing, too—and that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly, they became just as bad as the original placebo group.

The researchers concluded: “Curcumin seems to be a promising and safe medication for maintaining remission in patients with quiescent ulcerative colitis.” Indeed, no side effects were reported at all. So, “Curry for the cure?” asked an accompanying editorial in the journal of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. “Can curcumin be added to our list of options with respect to maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis? What is noteworthy about this trial is the fact that not only did the authors demonstrate a statistically significant decrease in relapse at 6 months, but a statistically significant improvement in the endoscopic index as well. Equally telling is the fact that upon withdrawal of curcumin the relapse rate quickly paralleled that of patients treated initially with placebo, implying that curcumin was, in fact, exerting some important biologic effect.”

Similarly, a Cochrane review concluded in 2013 that curcumin may be a safe and effective adjunct therapy. Cochrane reviews take all the best studies meeting strict quality criteria and compile all the best science together, which is normally a gargantuan undertaking. Not so in this case, however, as there is really just that one good study.


Turmeric is one of the most popular trending topics, and I encourage you to check out the most popular turmeric videos, including:

For more on ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease, 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: