Actress Suzanne Somers recently disclosed that she is battling breast
cancer. As she told the Associated Press, “I really feel I’m licking this.”
Not with conventional treatments, mind you, but with homeopathy. So is
homeopathy a medical miracle? Unfortunately, Somers is taking a great risk
with an alternative treatment derided by medical experts as nonsensical.
While it is perfectly possible that she may survive her bout with cancer,
others following her example might not be so lucky.
Homeopathy is based on two laws: “like cures like” and “less is more.” As
originally conceived by the 18th century German physician Samuel Hahnemann,
substances that cause particular symptoms in a healthy patient can cure
those symptoms in an ill patient — like cures like. Many of these substances, however, were quite toxic, so he decided to dilute them. Unsurprisingly, he discovered that the greater
the dilution, the lesser the side-effects. In a medical age dominated by
blood-letting and purging, treating patients with water was less
harmful. So Hahnemann was deluded into his second law: less is more. Less,
in this case, amounted to a dilution of ten parts water — up to a hundred
parts water — to every one part of the particular substance, repeated
anywhere from 30 to 200 times. Dr. Robert Park of the American Physical
Society reported in his book Voodoo Science that even at the
over-the-counter standard of 30 such dilutions (using ten parts water for
every one part of the substance), “you would have to drink 7,874 gallons of
the solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine.” Hahnemann
was presumably unaware that his recommended 200 dilutions (using 100 parts
water per one part of the substance) were, according to Park, “beyond the dilution limit of the
entire visible universe.” The resulting homeopathic remedy is, in effect,
So how can these remedies possibly work? Homeopaths believe that the water
in their concoctions maintains an “imprint” of the original material with
which it was mixed, before that material is diluted away. Liquid, in effect,
has a memory. But there is no evidence that this is true, and no homeopath
has ever theorized a reasonable way to test it.
Like most proponents of alternative medicine, homeopaths vaguely cite an
ever growing mound of evidence that homeopathy works. True, there have been
numerous studies of homeopathy, but most of them are unpublished and
unsubstantiated. Homeopaths can (and do) point to John Buenaviste’s 1988
scientific article in the prestigious journal Nature, but they tend not to
mention that it was roundly criticized in subsequent issues because the
results could not be replicated.
Dr. David Reilly, co-author of a recent study of homeopathy published in
the British Medical Journal told the UK newspaper The Guardian, “if people
tell you there’s a unicorn at the end of your garden you can invoke
plausibility and refuse to believe it. But if over 200 years people keep
saying there’s a unicorn in your garden then it might be at least worth a
look.” Indeed. But while the unicorn’s presence in my yard can be tested
with a mere glance, remedies not based on principles of physics
cannot be tested at all.
Since these remedies do not seem to be scientifically-based, safety is not
necessarily guaranteed. While in theory any dangerous ingredients should be
diluted out of existence, homeopathic remedies are unregulated and
unpredictable. Of course, in using homeopathy to deal with breast cancer, the real concern
is not the danger in using an alternative remedy but using it in place of
real medical treatment.
With luck, Suzanne Somers will survive her breast cancer, but homeopathy is
unlikely to help her in the battle as anything more potent than a placebo.
Hopefully, other cancer sufferers will not be persuaded that homeopathy’s
sudden celebrity status has anything to do with its usefulness in treating