Cancer and Vitamin C: Misnomers and More

Pauling at the chalkboard, 1979.

[Part 6 of 9]

Ewan Cameron and Linus Pauling’s 1979 book, Cancer and Vitamin C, was rooted in the most sound scientific understanding that could be compiled at the time. And through its three editions, many of the novel conclusions that the duo put forth made their way into the alternative health mainstream. That said, there are some assertions in the book – especially related to cancer treatments – that have been proven to be incorrect, and in places the authors use language that is certainly out of date.

Pauling and Cameron’s support of a synthetic estrogen, diethylstilbestrol (DES), is an area open to criticism. In their overview of cancer types and treatments, special attention was paid to cancers of the reproductive organs. This was so because, as Pauling and Cameron explained, reproductive cancers could sometimes be addressed with hormonal therapies. Certain breast cancers, for example, respond well to hormones and can be managed quite well with estrogen alone. Oftentimes these treatments were administered through the use of synthetic hormones, and one that Pauling and Cameron touted as being effective was DES.

First introduced in the late 1930s, DES developed a reputation as a miracle compound. It was used to help women overcome morning sickness during pregnancy, and doctors later deployed it to help prevent miscarriages. By the 1970s however, researchers were finding a correlation between treatment with DES and higher rates of birth defects. Despite these data, the connection, at the time, was somewhat ambiguous, and physicians continued to prescribe the drug. When Pauling and Cameron wrote their book, DES was also seen as a viable and effective treatment option for cancers, particularly of the breast and prostate, and Cancer and Vitamin C makes note of its safety and efficacy, particularly in addressing prostate cancer. Today however, adverse effects from DES are much better understood and, by 1997, manufacture of the hormone had essentially ceased.

Pauling and Cameron also made references to cancer prediction that did not hold up. Certain of these references were hamstrung by the fact that the field of genetic counseling had not been fully established by 1979. In their discussion of women’s health, Pauling and Cameron recognized that there appeared to be a link between breast cancer and ovarian cancer, and that these diseases sometimes ran in families. It was believed, therefore, that there was a genetic component to these diseases, but the authors felt as though it would be a long time before much could be done about such cases.

Today, while genetic counseling cannot prevent cancer per se, certain gene mutations have been identified as posing more particular risks, and individuals who show markers for those mutations can take actions to improve their odds for staying healthy. Those with the BRCA mutation, for example, have a much higher chance of developing breast and ovarian cancer, but with enough advance knowledge they can elect into surgeries or enhanced screenings that can drastically reduce cancer risk. So while Cameron and Pauling were pretty clearly aware of these genetic links, their language suggests that they did not anticipate the role that genetic screening plays today.

Another misnomer related to cancer prediction has to do with Pauling and Cameron’s assertion that cervical cancer is not caused by an STD, despite other theories at the time that suggested as much. Fundamentally, the idea that a communicable disease could cause a noncommunicable disease did not seem to make sense to the duo. However, we know today that certain strains of viral hepatitis can develop into cervical cancer. This knowledge has resulted in a hepatitis vaccine that is essentially a cancer vaccine. Nothing of the sort was mentioned as a possible treatment option in the book, likely because the idea did not seem to be supported by the scientific evidence that Pauling and Cameron were consulting.

Some of Pauling and Cameron’s misnomers were not directly related to scientific argument, but instead are more a reflection of the times in which the book was written. This is particularly evident in their olios of cancer patients who were treated with vitamin C. Part of their rationale in doing so was to humanize cancer and its treatment, especially with vitamin C. As a result, in addition to a description of their disease trajectory, Pauling and Cameron also provided a brief description of the person, including details like their age, job, and even physical appearance.

While these descriptions add personality to the text, they also offer a glimpse into the rhetoric of the day that is sometimes cringe-inducing, particularly when it comes to women. One patient, for example, was described as a “plump jolly widow,” another was a “slim attractive housewife,” and a third was a “wealthy attractive woman in her early forties.” In other instances, women were defined in terms of their husband’s occupations; the “wife of an unemployed shipyard laborer,” for example, and “the wife of a prosperous doctor.” In this, Cameron and Pauling’s cancer book also provides the reader with a document of cultural value, if unwittingly.