Chemotherapy results in substantial remission for only 3 per cent of cancers – mainly blood-based ones like Hodgkin’s disease, leukaemia and Burkitt’s lymphoma. Also successfully treated are testicular and ovarian cancers.
However, even for these, there may be serious short- and long-term side-effects. Many chemo drugs cause cancer later in life. Up to 8 per cent of children treated for leukaemia go on to develop cancers of the bone, thyroid and breast (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2001; 93: 618- 29). Chemo for ovarian cancer is linked with a high incidence of later leukaemia (Prog Clin Biol Res, 1992; 374: 167-74).
But most of today’s common cancers are solid tumours, against which chemotherapy is inherently less suitable. These include cancers of the breast, colon, lung, stomach, liver, pancreas and prostate, against which chemo has essentially no benefit.
As New York cancer expert Dr Albert Braverman observed, ‘Trainee doctors should be taught that chemotherapy is not part of the management of every cancer patient. Many cancer physicians recommend chemotherapy for virtually any tumour, with a hopefulness undiscouraged by almost invariable failure’ (Lancet, 1991; 337: 901-2).