“Purple grape juice can cure cancer,” and so can “shark cartilage, massive infusions of vitamin C, light from a helium-plasma lamp, and hyper-oxygenation.” In fact, “there are a myriad of cures for cancer, but they are being kept secret because of a conspiracy between the medical community, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and the federal government.” If you believe these statements, think again.
Such drivel is being doled out to unsuspecting and vulnerable patients with cancer who are searching for hope after facing a devastating diagnosis. Instead, they often find gross misinformation masquerading as the path to salvation, especially online.
Hard to believe? The proof is as close as your favorite search engine-just type “cancer cure.” Google revealed more than 143,000,000 matches, many with claims so outlandish they would be laughable, if it were not for the risk posed to unsuspecting patients.
Searching for Hope in All the Wrong Places
When patients hear the words “It’s cancer,” their ability to think logically and discern truth from fiction can often be compromised, especially when anxiety and/or depression is involved. Newly diagnosed patients want a reprieve from what feels like a death sentence. They want to hear they will be okay. If doctors cannot deliver that, some patients start searching for alternatives. Although this is understandable, it can be trading what may be the best hope for a cure (or control) of the disease, for false treatments.
A bold headline at the top of www.cancer-research-awareness.com/mexican-cancer-clinics.html states, “How You Can Survive Cancer in Just 3 Weeks by Going to a Mexican Clinic.” The pitchwoman is an attractive southern Californian and purported cancer survivor. Ms. Smith (not her real name) proclaims that she has survived 9 years with stage IV ovarian cancer after receiving “natural” treatments at a Tijuana clinic. She’s not the exception, stating that 85% of patients receiving so-called natural treatments at the clinic are either cured or in remission after 5 years. She is so sold on the clinic that she will personally handle your case, facilitate an introduction to clinic personnel, and arrange a medical assessment.
Other websites choose to begin their come-on with strong condemnations of traditional medicine, under the guise of educating consumers about the truth behind cancer treatment.
For example, www.cancertutor.com sets out to correct the many misperceptions. It first states, “Cancer researchers are diligently looking for ways to cure cancer,” but then it says, “The pharmaceutical industry would never release a new drug which cured cancer even if it accidentally found one.” Although the pharmaceutical industry may be guilty of many things, this statement is intellectually insulting and a clear falsehood. But it doesn’t stop there.
According to www.cancertutor.com, “The job of the FDA is to crush cures for cancer, especially cures developed by natural medicine experts. If oncologists told patients to do nothing but drink a quart of purple grape juice every day, cure rates for cancer would skyrocket to almost 100% (instead of the current 2.1% 5-year cure rates).”
Pseudo-Cures Carry Real Dangers
If traditional medicine has little to offer a patient in terms of a cure or long-term control of the cancer, then what is the harm in exploring alternatives? After all, whereas traditional medicine relies on cutting, poisoning, or burning out our cancer, many alternative treatments are natural and gentle, or so we are led to believe.It is conceivable that 100 years from now, medical historians will look back on traditional chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery with a degree of horror, much as contemporary physicians view blood-letting and medicinal arsenic in the past. But the alternatives being proffered by charlatans pose serious risks to patients with cancer.
One such example is laetrile (also known as amygdalin and is promoted as vitamin B17 on some websites), a synthetic compound similar to a natural substance found in bitter almonds and apricot pits. According to Dr. Stephen Barrett, “Laetrile…achieved great notoriety during the 1970s and early 1980s.”1 The problem is that in addition to not preventing, controlling, or curing cancer, laetrile produces hydrogen cyanide and other potentially lethal compounds when ingested.
Despite these dangers, Dr. Barrett notes, “In response to political pressure, a clinical trial was begun in 1982 at the Mayo Clinic and three other U.S. cancer centers under NCI sponsorship. Of the 178 patients, not one was cured or stabilized, and none had any lessening of cancer-related symptoms. Several patients experienced symptoms of cyanide toxicity or had blood levels of cyanide approaching the lethal range.”1 Yet, one need only cross the border to receive laetrile therapy.
Separating False Propaganda from Helpful Therapies
Purveyors of miracle cures for cancer care are savvy marketers. They understand:
- What promises are most likely to resonate with patients
- How to frame their interventions using pseudo-scientific terminology
- Using testimonials as proof of treatment effectiveness
- The need to explain why their treatment has been suppressed by mainstream medicine
- The need for accurate statements about the toxicity and potential ineffectiveness of traditional medicines
Such propaganda works, particularly with anyone desperate for hope. We are not condemning all alternative medicines. Many complementary and integrative medicines, such as acupuncture, massage, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and others, offer therapies that improve patient outcomes. But those therapies never promise to be miracle cures; rather, they are used as a complementary way to enhance a patient’s quality of life.
It begins to get dicey when patients are asked to ingest herbal and other preparations that range from harmless (but useless) to potentially toxic compounds. According to Dr. Barrett, the American Cancer Society has 3 straightforward measures that every consumer should consider for any therapeutic intervention1:
- Has the method been objectively demonstrated in the peer-reviewed scientific literature to be effective?
- Has the method shown potential benefit that clearly exceeds the potential for harm?
- Have objective studies been correctly conducted under appropriate methods to answer these questions?
Careful judgment is needed to separate fantasy from facts. Although patients may understandably wish to escape a cancer diagnosis, buying into false promises can be dangerous.
No One Is Immune to False Myths
If you think you are immune to the “charms” of a quack, think again. Even the most astute, well-educated patients have fallen prey. The authors of a recent scientific study said, “Psychopathic traits of superficial charm and pathological lying, when exhibited by a quack practitioner giving cancer patients the very words they want to hear such as ‘cancer cure,’ can lead the vulnerable patient into their grasp.”2 No one wants to succumb to cancer, nor fall victim to the charms and lies of a pseudohealer.
- Barrett S. Questionable cancer therapies. Quackwatch. Revised July 24, 2015. www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/cancer.html. Accessed January 29, 2016.
- Smith PJ, Clavarino A, Long J, Steadman KJ. Why do some cancer patients receiving chemotherapy choose to take complementary and alternative medicines and what are the risks? Asia Pac J Clin Oncol. 2014;10:1-10.
Mr. Leifer is a senior healthcare executive, consultant, academician, writer, and an advocate for patients’ rights.