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We've all known people who defy the expectations of their doctors.
Maybe it's a friend who smokes every day, never exercises, hates going to the doctor, eats lots of fatty foods, and lives to be 98. Or maybe it's a family member who exercises, eats right, does everything the doctor says, and dies of lung cancer at the age of 45.
Even though mainstream medicine regards large-scale clinical trials as the holy grail of scientific truth, more and more researchers are noticing that exceptional responders to medical treatment, people who get either inexplicably good results or inexplicably bad, can teach the scientists about the real nature of disease and the real value of treatment.
Who Are the Exceptional Responders?
"Evidence-based medicine" rests on the statistical principal that large numbers of observations should compensate for any errors in choosing the participants included in a clinical trial. Researchers want to compare "apples to apples and oranges to oranges" with their research. There was a point in cancer research, for example, when researchers were looking for treatments for "cancer," as if there were just one kind of cancer. (This is where a lot of the advocates of natural medicine are stuck, with beliefs such as "vitamin B-17 cures all cancers," although it doesn't, for example).
Then cancer researchers started differentiating cancers on the basis of location. Lung cancer isn't the same thing as breast cancer, and neither is the same thing as brain cancer, for example. However, then it became obvious that there are differences among cancers even when they occur in the same organ. Breast cancers may be estrogen-receptor positive (that is, they are stimulated by estrogen, and removing estrogen from circulation may slow them down) or estrogen receptor non-positive. Pancreatic cancer may be an exocrine tumor, or a neuroendocrine tumor, or an islet cell tumor. Lung cancer may be small cell or non-small cell.
Cancers with similar names, it turned out, might be mixtures of apples with oranges, or oranges with apples, or maybe apples with bananas and pomegranates. Especially since the mapping of the human genome, cancer has been redefined into types, and subtypes, and subtypes within subtypes. However, these classifications also miss the point.
If You Are a Cancer Patient, You Aren't Just a Statistic
Clinical trials for cancer drugs are based on the experience of hundreds of people under tightly controlled conditions that are designed to remove any consideration for individual differences. That's what makes them "scientific."
The treatment actual cancer patients get at their oncologists' offices, however, is highly individualized. No practicing oncologist assumes that a single approach to treatment works for every patient who has cancer, or even every patient who have a particular type or subtype of cancer. Successful cancer treatment is always about your cancer, not someone else's.
Similarly, even when a test involving hundreds of people finds "no significant benefit" of a treatment, that doesn't mean that it didn't work for anyone. It only means that the treatment can't be reasonably expected to work for everyone. The fact that science doesn't back up a particular treatment doesn't mean that treatment won't work for you. Some treatments, however, are still better than others.