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Several sources, among them Huffington Post and Daily Mail claim a recent study showed that chemotherapy, which is used as a cancer cure, actually makes cancer worse.

Chemotherapy can backfire by helping healthy body cells to fuel treatment-resistant cancer and growth, research has shown.

The surprise discovery suggests that many forms of cancer treatment can actually make the disease tougher to tackle.

[Daily Mail and Huffington Post both published the same, word for word, and neither acknowledges the other as source. But that’s just an aside.]

This sounds like very bad news indeed. Is there any truth to it?

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    The Daily Mail has a rather peculiar obsession with classifying just about everything as either causing cancer, curing cancer, or (as in the case of chemo and quite a few other things) both. kill-or-cure.heroku.com – EnergyNumbers Aug 7 '12 at 20:10
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    Sourcing the article, valid question would rather be "Can", not "Does". – vartec Aug 12 '12 at 23:41
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    Lol, Daily Mail. If the Daily Mail were to come out tomorrow as an Onion knock-off, I wouldn't bat an eyelash. – Qix Jan 8 '13 at 17:19
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No.

This result is a blatant misrepresentation of what the study1 actually did, namely cataloguing changes in behaviour in the cells surrounding a tumour when exposed to anticancer treatment, and how those changes affect the resistance of the tumour to the treatment.

Cancer Research UK calls the headlines “misleading” and warns not to take them seriously. They go on to say that,

In fact, the research from US scientists that sparked the coverage categorically does not show chemotherapy makes cancer harder to beat. Instead, the work gives scientists a vital insight into one way that the body can develop resistance to chemotherapy, and it could help explain why treatment sometimes stops working.

And quite contrary to what the newspapers write, they say that “this is a ‘good news’ story”, because it explains a known weakness of existing chemotherapy which can help develop better treatments.

They also clarify that the new research “doesn’t affect current treatment”.

Cancer patients do not need to be alarmed by today’s headlines and should not stop treatment. Decades of clinical trials have proved the effectiveness of chemotherapy in treating cancer and extending life …

Radiotherapy and surgery – not to mention other strategies like healthy living, early diagnosis and screening – are crucial, but chemotherapy plays a big part too. And work to improve it must be welcomed.

But while we applaud the media’s interest in this important scientific paper, we want to calm the nerves of anyone worried by some of the headlines, which by themselves don’t paint an accurate picture of the research.

Sloppy news coverage indeed. Cancer Research UK call out this sloppy coverage again by nothing that

Contrary to what some news outlets claim, this is not a particularly surprising finding either.

In fact, the acquisition of resistance to anticancer treatment by tumours is a very well-known and unfortunate side-effect. For a newspaper to claim that this is a “surprising” new finding is nothing short of ignorant.

References

  1. Y. Sun, J. Campisi & al., Treatment-induced damage to the tumor microenvironment promotes prostate cancer therapy resistance through WNT16B, Nature medicine (2012)
  • does this mean cancer treatment might start heading back towards traditional medicine practices rather than poisoning people and hoping the cancer is weaker than the rest of the body? – Ryathal Aug 7 '12 at 20:11
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    @Ryathal Mu – Tacroy Aug 7 '12 at 21:08
  • @Ryathal: ever thought of reading an introductory biology book? – nico Aug 8 '12 at 9:30
  • @Tacroy, or woo? :) – Benjol Aug 8 '12 at 12:23
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No - but it often causes cancer. Not immediately, but years down the road.

Alkylating Agents as Environmental Carcinogen and Chemotherapy Agents

Alkylating agents are an important class of carcinogens. [...] On the other hand, alkylating agents are used in certain chemotherapy regimens

Pathology of Therapy-Related Myeloid Neoplasms

Therapy-related myeloid neoplasms(t-MN) are a heterogeneous group of clonal hematopoietic stem cell disorders that are directly related to previous cytotoxic chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

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    I think it would be helpful if you provided more explicit descriptions and references of how and which chemotherapies cause cancer, and some reference for the claim that this happens often. – P_S Aug 10 '14 at 13:11
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    In particular, please quantify "often". – Nate Eldredge Aug 10 '14 at 15:30

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