Essiac Tea: Miracle Cure or Just Another Shameless Cancer Hoax?
Here at Irregular Times we’ve been writing about hoaxes in general, and cancer hoaxes in particular, for some time now. This month, the relevance of the hoaxsters hit home. My wife was diagnosed just a few weeks ago with an apparently incurable and deadly cancer. Since I’ve found out, I have myself felt the desperation for a secret, hidden, or just-developed miracle cure. It’s like a heavy pit in my stomach.
Now that cancer is in my family, I am more angry than ever at the inexcusable yet shameless behavior of snake oil salesmen (and women) who are willing to exploit desperation for a buck, selling “miracle” products that just don’t work. The lies of the snake oil salesmen are magnified by well-meaning people who out of their trusting, faithful and unquestioning natures take the hucksters at their word and spread that word far and wide.
Since my wife’s cancer diagnosis many well-informed friends and acquaintances have helped me find medical centers of excellence whose survival rates are available through analysis of freely available datasets containing outcomes for millions of people. I can check up on the expertise of the doctors we consult by reviewing their history of published research. I’m grateful for the help of these friends and acquaintances who have helped point me in the right direction and provided me with verifiable information.
There are also many friends and acquaintances who have pointed me in the wrong direction. I’m not angry at these friends because I know they’re trying to help. I’m angry at the people who have duped them by taking advantage of their belief in the honesty of human beings who look honest and sound honest. Friends have suggested my wife go on the “Gerson therapy” of juicing and coffee enemas (which not only doesn’t work but can actually harm some people). People tell me all the time that they’ll be praying for my wife’s return to health (although the effect of distant prayer appears in research to be nil). I expected these declarations and was prepared for them with a polite smile, a thank you and a quick segue into another subject.
I wasn’t prepared for the friendly visitor who with heartfelt concern insisted that my wife begin treatments of “Essiac tea.” “This tea was developed by a Canadian nurse after she learned the secret from an Ojibwe medicine man. I learned about it on the internet,” our visitor told me. “She didn’t make a penny on it, and this tea fights all cancers. There have been many cases where doctors can’t find any more cancer and they can’t explain it. There is a recovery rate of 80%. 80%! Your wife needs to start on this right away.” And with that, she put a package of Essiac tea in my hand. You can find versions of my visitor’s story all over the internet, containing various mixes of the above elements, including the claim about an “80% recovery rate” (without documentation).
What is Essiac tea? Well, the preparation I received, sold by the Good Tern Natural Foods Co-Op in Rockland, contained four herbal ingredients: sheep sorrel, burdock root, elm bark and turkey rhubarb. These ingredients are apparently typical, according to the boosterish naturopathic website essiactreatment.com. “Essiac” sounds like an adjective, but it is really just the last name of its developer, Rene Caisse, spelled backwards.
Does Essiac tea really fight all cancers, end cancer, stop cancer? It’d be great if it did. But there’s no evidence from systematic clinical trials indicating that it does. I have not been able to find a single clinical trial in a published, peer-reviewed scientific journal indicating that Essiac tea has any positive effect on cancer — and the National Cancer Institute also asserts that there have not been any published clinical trial results. I have not been able to find any proof of an “80% recovery rate” for people using Essiac tea — not anywhere. A rare publication in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a sympathetic outlet, describes a retrospective non-experimental study of breast cancer patients that finds no difference between Essiac tea users and non-users in health-related quality of life or mood. That paper references a 1977 Phase II clinical trial that found no effect of Essiac tea on cancer survival; results from the trial were never published. However, a Canadian government review of unpublished trial data determined that Essiac tea had no effect on survival or tumor growth. Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore Libraries have shown that in vitro (outside the body), Essiac tea actually promotes breast cancer tumor growth.
Research summaries by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and Cancer Research UK corroborate these determination that Essiac tea does nothing for cancer. Even naturopathic “guru” Andrew Weill recommends that cancer patients avoid Essiac tea, because while doing nothing for cancer it can disrupt patients’ fluid balance and damage the liver and kidneys.
Those who sell Essiac tea today know full well that there is no demonstrated effect of the tea on cancer — but they continue to peddle and spread the stories and manipulate trusting, good-hearted people like my visitor into spreading the stories. There’s good money to be made peddling this nonsense tea. If you’re curious https://www.essiacproducts.com/secureorder/unitedstates (no hyperlink — I don’t want to reward the company with an actual working link) and review the price of Essiac tea sold by the holder of Rene Caisse’s proprietary license. As of today, a 10.5 fluid-ounce bottle of the stuff costs $38.00, plus shipping and handling fees. That’s a hefty profit, and according to the seller a bottle will only provide enough doses for 7 1/2 days.
People who make money peddling fake cures to desperate people used to merely offend me morally. Now they make me very, very angry. Let’s call these people what they are. Fraudsters. Let’s call Essiac tea what it is. A hoax. The only way to stop this is spread the truth in voices louder than the voices of the fraudsters and the well-meaning people they dupe. Will you do your bit? Will you share the truth?