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:

Dialing Down the Grim Reaper Gene

Only about 1 in 10,000 people live to be a 100 years old. What’s their secret? I discuss this in my video Animal Protein Compared to Cigarette Smoking.

In 1993, a major breakthrough in longevity research was published about a single genetic mutation that doubled the lifespan of a tiny roundworm. Instead of all worms being dead by 30 days, the mutants lived 60 days or longer. This lifespan extension was “the largest yet reported in any organism.” This methuselah worm, a “medical marvel,” is “the equivalent of a healthy 200-year-old human.” All because of a single mutation? That shouldn’t happen. Presumably, aging is caused by multiple processes, affected by many genes. How could knocking out a single gene double lifespan?

What is this aging gene—a gene that so speeds up aging that if it’s knocked out, the animals live twice as long? It’s been called the Grim Reaper gene and is the worm equivalent of the human insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) receptor. Mutations of that same receptor in humans may help explain why some people live to be a hundred and other people don’t.

So, is it just the luck of the draw whether we got good genes or bad ones? No, we can turn on and off the expression of these genes, depending on what we eat. Years ago I profiled a remarkable series of experiments about IGF-1, a cancer-promoting growth hormone released in excess amounts by our liver when we eat animal protein. Men and women who don’t eat meat, egg white, or dairy proteins have significantly lower levels of IGF-1 circulating within their bodies, and switching people to a plant-based diet can significantly lower IGF-1 levels within just 11 days, markedly improving the ability of women’s bloodstreams to suppress breast cancer cell growth and then kill off breast cancer cells.

Similarly, the blood serum of men on a plant-based diet suppresses prostate cancer cell growth about eight times better than before they changed their diet. However, this dramatic improvement in cancer defenses is abolished if just the amount of IGF-1 banished from their systems as a result of eating and living healthier is added back. This is one way to explain the low rates of cancer among plant-based populations: The drop in animal protein intake leads to a drop in IGF-1, which in turn leads to a drop in cancer growth. The effect is so powerful that Dr. Dean Ornish and colleagues appeared to be able to reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer without chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation—just a plant-based diet and lifestyle program.

When we’re kids, we need growth hormones to grow. There’s a rare genetic defect that causes severe IGF-1 deficiency, leading to a type of dwarfism. It also apparently makes you effectively cancer-proof. A study reported not a single death from cancer in about 100 individuals with IGF-1 deficiency. What about 200 individuals? None developed cancer. Most malignant tumors are covered in IGF-1 receptors, but if there’s no IGF-1 around, they may not be able to grow and spread.

This may help explain why lives appear to be cut short by eating low-carb diets. It’s not just any low-carb diet, though. Specifically, low-carb diets based on animal sources appear to be the problem, whereas vegetable-based low-carb diets were associated with a lower risk of death. But low-carb diets are high in animal fat as well as animal protein, so how do we know the saturated animal fat wasn’t killing off people and it had nothing to do with the protein? What we need is a study that follows a few thousand people and their protein intakes for 20 years or so, and sees who lives longest, who gets cancer, and who doesn’t. But, there had never been a study like that…until now.

Six thousand men and women over age 50 from across the United States were followed for 18 years, and those under age 65 with high protein intakes had a 75 percent increase in overall mortality and a fourfold increase in the risk of dying from cancer. Does it matter what type of protein? Yes. “These associations were either abolished or attenuated if the proteins were plant derived,” which makes sense given the higher IGF-1 levels in those eating excess protein.

The sponsoring university sent out a press release with a memorable opening line: “That chicken wing you’re eating could be as deadly as a cigarette.” It explained that “eating a diet rich in animal proteins during middle age makes you four times more likely to die of cancer than someone with a low-protein diet—a mortality risk factor comparable to smoking.” And when they say “low-protein diet,” what they actually mean is getting the recommended amount of protein.

“Almost everyone is going to have a cancer cell or pre-cancer cell in them at some point. The question is: Does it progress?” said one of the lead researchers. That may depend on what we eat.

“[T]he question is not whether a certain diet allows you to do well for three days,” a researcher noted, “but can it help you survive to be 100?” Excessive protein consumption isn’t only “linked to a dramatic rise in cancer mortality, but middle-aged people who eat lots of proteins from animal sources…are also more susceptible to early death in general.” Crucially, the same didn’t apply to plant proteins like beans, and it wasn’t the fat; the animal protein appeared to be the culprit.

What was the response to the revelation that diets high in meat, eggs, and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking? One nutrition scientist replied that it was potentially dangerous because it could “damage the effectiveness of important public health messages.” Why? Because a smoker might think “why bother quitting smoking if my cheese and ham sandwich is just as bad for me?”

This reminds me of a famous Philip Morris cigarette ad that tried to downplay the risks of smoking by saying that if we think second-hand smoke is bad, increasing the risk of lung cancer 19 percent, drinking one or two glasses of milk every day may be three times as bad with a 62 percent higher risk of lung cancer. What’s more, doubling the risk is frequently cooking with oil, tripling our risk of heart disease is eating non-vegetarian, and multiplying our risk six-fold is eating lots of meat and dairy. So, they conclude, “Let’s keep a sense of perspective.” The ad goes on to say that the risk of cancer from second-hand smoke may be “well below the risk reported…for many everyday items and activities.” So, breathe deep!

That’s like saying we shouldn’t worry about getting stabbed because getting shot is so much worse. Or, if we don’t wear seatbelts, we might as well have unprotected sex. If we go bungee jumping, we might as well disconnect our smoke alarms at home. Two risks don’t make a right.

Of course, you’ll note Philip Morris stopped throwing dairy under the bus once they purchased Kraft Foods.

The IGF-1 story is so pivotal that it’s one of the first video series I ever produced for NutritionFacts.org. I’m so glad I was able to release this long-awaited update. If you want a blast from the past, watch the original series starting with Engineering a Cure.

For more parallels between the tobacco industry and the food industry, see:

What about the mobile phone industry? Does Cell Phone Radiation Cause Cancer?

For more on healthy aging and longevity, see:

It’s important to note the so-called low protein intake is actually the recommended protein intake, which is associated with a major reduction in cancer and overall mortality in middle age, under age 65. But did you notice that it says not among older individuals? All of this is covered in my video Increasing Protein Intake After Age 65.

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: