Today I came across a website dedicated to a young Irishwoman who has been fighting cancer throughout 2011. Hannah Bradley was diagnosed with brain cancer earlier this year, and since then she has been in and out of hospital, undergoing surgery and radiotherapy in an effort to keep the tumour at bay. It has truly been a terrible time for everyone involved.

Honestly, I cannot imagine how I would react if I were in such a position. When treatment options are limited, people are motivated to help as much as they can. There is clearly a strong desire to keep her alive, to not lose hope, and for this they must be commended. 

On Hannah’s website, the desired course of action is the clinic of Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski in Houston, Texas. Burzynski advertises treatments involving “antineoplastons”. These are molecules, so the claim goes, that attack cancerous cells, leaving healthy cells alone. Unfortunately, there is no proper scientific evidence that these treatments work, and Burzynski has not shared the data with the wider medical community in order for the treatments to be validated. Furthermore, his treatments have not been approved by US regulators. Burzynski is getting around this by presenting the treatments as experimental. This would possibly be ok, except for the surprisingly and stupendously high cost of such an experimental approach. The bottom line is that his clinic exists on the fringes of the medical world. Instead of working with scientists and oncologists to prove for once and for all whether his course of treatment is scientifically valid, he has rejected it all in favour of direct approaches to patients and the use of slick marketing and testimonials. Burzynski presents himself as the lone genius who has challenged the might of the medical establishment. This would be fine if he had properly controlled, peer reviewed evidence, but so far, he has not been able to provide this. The burden of proof clearly rests on his shoulders.

Over the past few weeks, challenges to Burzynski’s methods have been met by a barrage of legal threats from an individual who appears to be associated in some way with the clinic, including a personalised attack on a 17 year old blogger that beggars belief. This is not the right way to meet such challenges. The right way would be to provide the facts, and to let these facts speak for themselves.   

Hannah’s friends have clearly decided that Dr. Burzynski holds the keys to her recovery. Data is emerging throughout the Internet each day that this is not the case. I understand that Hannah’s team will feel that they have invested themselves on a course of action – that perhaps it is too late to change course – but for Hannah’s sake, they need to take this new information into account. It will make for very uncomfortable reading and there will be a natural tendency to rationalise it away as the product of some very mean and nasty individuals. The people who are presenting this information are not bad people. Many of them work closely with cancer sufferers, and many of them will have lost family and close friends to cancer. If Team Hannah were to reach out to some of these critics, I expect they would be listened to sympathetically and provided with second and third opinions. The question “what would you do?” can always be asked.

I know that the medical establishment can sometimes appear cold and arrogant. I know that there are limits to what is known and that doctors can sometimes give patients a message that they never want to hear. It is heartbreaking to have someone say “We can’t do any more”. The natural inclination is to say that they are not trying hard enough. Sometimes, perhaps they aren’t. But, no matter how inadequate doctors may seem, there is a world of a difference – a universe of a difference – between medical science and outright quackery. 

Cancer is shit. Real shit. It’s the plague of our times. Some day, hopefully, our children or grand children might look back on the world today and ask how we managed through it at all. The hard, thankless work of medical researchers will continue to push the frontiers forward. They have already accomplished wonders, but much more needs to be done. Given time, there will be enormous advances. Unfortunately for some, time is running out.

I wish Hannah the very best. I hope she can get through this nightmare of a year and emerge with this awful thing in remission. If her doctors can still help her, I hope they are doing everything within their powers to give her the best possible chances. I don’t know from her blog if the cancer has metastasised, whether chemotherapy has been tried or even if it is effective against such a cancer. If options within the medical literature are still available, then I expect they have already been seriously considered by all concerned. If options no longer seem to exist then yes, it’s heartbreaking. Being there, at such a time, possibly trumps doing something. I wish her the very best.


a) The False Hope of the Burzynski Clinic (Andy Lewis)

b) Stanislaw Burzynski: Bad medicine, a bad movie, and bad P.R. (David Gorski)

c) Antineoplastons (Skeptical Health)

d) Burzynski The Movie: Hitting you over the head with pseudoscience (Orac)