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Q. We were surprised to read that thalidomide is being prescribed to treat cancers. Please tell us if it could be used against malignant melanoma. We are dealing with this dreadful cancer and are desperate for anything that might be helpful.

A. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved thalidomide (Thalomid) for the treatment of a rare complication of leprosy. The manufacturer expects to ship it to approved pharmacies next week.

Though this drug was responsible for an epidemic of tragic birth defects decades ago, it holds great promise for a range of serious medical conditions. There is little clinical research, but scientists hope that its ability to restrict blood flow to tumors will prove a novel way to attack cancer.

Only time will tell if thalidomide is effective against cancers of the breast, lung, ovaries, uterus or colon. Some investigators believe it may even benefit patients with melanoma or myeloma. Researchers are also investigating a possible role in treating Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and macular degeneration.

Certo and arthritis

Q. I saw your item about a home remedy with Certo helping arthritis. I have been using this mixture for about three months and it is working to relieve my knee pain and swelling. I'd like to know what is in Certo and how it works. I've previously had surgery, which didn't relieve the pain, so I am confused but grateful that this remedy helps so much.

A. Certo contains water, fruit pectin, lactic acid, citric acid, potassium citrate and the preservative sodium benzoate. Pectin comes from the cell walls of plants and makes them rigid. It is used in making jellies and jams because it thickens them to the proper consistency.

We have no idea why Certo might help relieve arthritis pain. The remedy has been kicking around for at least 50 years, but we haven't been able to locate any scientific studies supporting this use.

Pectin is a soluble fiber that can lower total cholesterol and triglycerides. It was traditionally combined with kaolin as a diarrhea treatment in products such as Kaopectate (reformulated several years ago).

We are sending you our "Guide to Home Remedies," which contains this and other popular pain recipes, including gin-soaked raisins, the vinegar-and-juice remedy and the aspartame approach. Anyone else who would like a copy, please send $2 in check or money order with a long (No. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope to Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. R-289, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, N.C. 27717-2027.

Readers have recommended two teaspoons of Certo in three ounces of grape juice three times a day. Others take one tablespoon of Certo in eight ounces of grape juice once a day. Certo can be found in your local supermarket, in the canning section.

Plop, plop, fizz, fizz

Q. My doctor says I should take aspirin every day, both for my heart and to protect against colon cancer. (I have had two polyps removed, which means I am at higher than normal risk of colon cancer.)

I have been following this regimen for seven months, but I find that even one aspirin tablet sometimes upsets my stomach. When I visited England this summer I discovered several brands of "fizzy aspirin" that bubble and dissolve in water. These did not give me a stomachache. Do we have anything like that in the United States?

A. Perhaps the closest product is Alka-Seltzer, which contains aspirin along with sodium bicarbonate. We are not aware of any plain soluble aspirin, but if you drop an ordinary aspirin tablet into a glass of club soda or carbonated water, it will fizz and dissolve.

Write to Joe and Teresa Graedon in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. The People's Pharmacy radio show is heard Saturdays at 2 p.m. on WNED-AM.

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