Suzanne Somers' Bad Medicine

by Howard Fienberg
May 4, 2001

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, ordinary water.

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 True, there have been numerous studies of homeopathy, but most of them are unpublished and unsubstantiated.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 cancer.

Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving public understanding of scientific and social research.

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