Scientists are accusing two newspapers of "irresponsible journalism" after they ran uncritical stories about a woman's decision to reject conventional treatment for her breast cancer and instead attempt to cure it with a fad diet.
The Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Metro and Sun all reported that Sarah Valentine, a 36-year-old from Kent who has four children, has stage 1 breast cancer – two tumours in her left breast – and was offered a mastectomy, or the removal of the tumours and radiotherapy, on the NHS.
However, she has turned down that option and instead is "following an alkaline-based vegan diet" because she is "100% sure" her cancer is "emotional".
Her diet, according to the reports, involves "slashing acidic products, meats and even grains from her daily menu", "a costly vitamin C and sodium sultanate drip", "Golden Paste – a product made up of turmeric powder, water, oil and pepper", and "a £300 water filter" attached to her tap.
Only the Metro included any sceptical voices in their coverage of the story, a comment from Cancer Research UK (CRUK).
Three of the articles include a link to a GoFundMe crowdfunding site that Valentine hopes will help pay for "vitamin C drips, supplements, a water distiller, thermo imaging to check tumour shrinkage and hormone-testing reports".
Yeo said he felt the "alkali diet" stuff in particular has become increasingly widespread: "A friend has cancer, and while he was under treatment in hospital, he heard patients talking about the alkaline diet. It's out there. Among the cancer community, it's seen as a thing you can use.
"And it's complete and utter nonsense."
Yeo said "clean eating" diets weren't harmful in themselves: "One criticism I've had is that I equate quacks trying to cure cancer with these lovely food gurus trying to make us all healthier, but I say it's on a spectrum. It's about what you're deploying the science to do.
"If someone chooses to eat more healthily while on chemo or whatever, that's a great thing. But if someone elects to say 'that chemo things sounds awful' – which it is – and 'if I could eat healthy instead of my chemo', that’s dangerous.
"I don't blame the patient. They're ill and desperate and will try anything. I blame the person trying to sell the thing, that's where the responsibility lies." He also said the media has a responsibility to provide accurate information that allows patients to make informed decisions.
Trish Greenhalgh, a professor of primary healthcare and a GP who has herself suffered from breast cancer, also told BuzzFeed News the stories were "irresponsible journalism".
"Stage 1 breast cancer is completely curable if people take the recommended treatment," she said. "I know, I’ve had it. I’m 20 months post-diagnosis and 100% fine, with no signs of residual cancer or recurrence. As it happens, I eat a near-vegan diet (because I don’t like meat). I respect this woman’s wish to follow a vegan diet. But it wasn’t the diet that cured me, it was the medicine and surgery."
She went on: "The diet won’t cure her, and the cancer, without treatment, could kill her. If she had stage 4 cancer that would be a shame, but given she’s got stage 1 (curable) cancer, it’s a complete tragedy."
She said the reporters who wrote the stories "should be ashamed of themselves, since that story could induce other women with stage 1 breast cancer to reject conventional treatment".
Greenhalgh added: "The other point to make is that when diagnosed with cancer you clutch at straws. I know, I did. But actually, medical science has progressed so far that SOME cancers these days are now curable. Stage 1 breast cancer is an example of a cancer that’s curable. So there’s actually no need to panic. But the word ‘cancer’ makes people panic. The message we need to get across is that cancer need not be a death sentence.
"Women with a new diagnosis of breast cancer will not die of their disease. Breast cancer survival has doubled from 40% to 80% in the last 40 years."
Martin Ledwick, CRUK’s head cancer information nurse, said: “There’s no evidence that a change in diet or alternative therapies can treat cancer. In fact, in some situations, alternative therapies could be very harmful, so shouldn’t be used instead of conventional cancer treatment."
The story originally came from the Press Association. A spokesperson said: "The story is not celebratory; it is an account of a woman’s unorthodox approach to healing herself following a cancer diagnosis.
"PA does not campaign or crusade; our Real Life features strand offers a space for a diverse range of people to share their first-hand stories every day. Many of these stories trigger passionate debates, just like Sarah’s."
The spokesperson added: "Sarah shared with us the details of her decision to turn down traditional treatment in favour of an alkaline-based vegan diet. It’s a controversial approach, bound to trigger widespread conversations.
"PA did not present Sarah’s opinions as fact, and we pointed out in our article that she is defying medical advice by declining either a mastectomy or a lumpectomy and radiotherapy at this stage of her illness."
The Sun declined to comment. BuzzFeed News has contacted the Mirror and Mail.
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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