Some alternative health websites promote conspiracy theories of 'hidden cures' for cancer. These conspiracy theories are false, and they are harmful to patients.
Let's look at two of these claims to see why they don't make sense. Then I'll explain why these conspiracy theories hurt patients.
Conspiracy Theory #1: There's a cure for cancer, but doctors are hiding it.
The premise with this statement is that since doctors make a living from treating cancer, if there was a cure, we’d all be hitting the unemployment lines. So we just clam up and keep the cure to ourselves.
There’s one obvious problem with this logic: doctors and their family members die of cancer too. I have known cancer doctors who died of cancer, and some of my colleagues have lost their spouses or children to cancer. If there were a cure that we were not sharing with the public, certainly we would use it for ourselves and our loved ones. Does it seem logical that an oncologist would let her child die, or die herself, just to keep a secret cure hidden? No sane person would do that.
The other problem with this theory is that doctors and researchers spend huge amounts of unpaid time working on cancer research, often in the evenings and on weekends, away from family and friends. Many of us also donate to cancer research. For my upcoming book, Taking Charge of Cancer, which focuses on helping patients get top-quality care, I've donated all the author royalties to cancer research. Why would we waste so much time and money if there was already a cure?
This idea just doesn't make sense.
Conspiracy Theory #2: Pharmaceutical Companies Are Hiding the Cure
In this version, the doctors are blameless, but the magic bullet is hidden by a greedy pharmaceutical company that wants to keep the real cure hidden so that instead, it can continue to sell drugs that don’t work as well.
Let’s consider the economics of this. We’ll imagine that a pharmaceutical company has a magic bullet, a single pill that will cure all cancers. Is it better to sell the single pill, or to sell less-effective treatments that patients have to keep taking for years?
Governments and insurers pay a lot of money for medical treatments. In many countries, the decision about how much to pay for a drug (or whether to pay for it at all) depends on its benefit compared to the cost. A drug that increases someone’s life span by 10 years is worth much more than a drug that gets only an extra month.
To calculate if a drug is worth paying for, health economists use a value called the quality-adjusted life year, or QALY. If a drug adds one year of high-quality time to your life (in other words, during that extra year, you are not sick with side effects or disabled), it adds one QALY. This allows payers to decide which medical treatments are worth funding. If one treatment costs $100,000 per QALY and another costs $500,000 per QALY, it makes sense to prioritize the cheaper one over the more expensive one.
Some countries draw a line in the sand dictating the maximum they will pay per extra QALY. A cost of $100,000 per QALY is a reasonable line. If a new drug comes along that costs $500,000 per QALY, it would not be funded with that cutoff. Some countries have higher or lower cutoffs or no cutoff at all.
If we were willing to pay $100,000 per QALY, we can calculate the value of that magic bullet hidden by a drug company. If you give the magic bullet to a 30-year-old patient who is about to pass away from a terminal cancer, she would be cured and might be expected to live to age 80. As long as she has good quality of life, you’ve given her 50 extra QALYs, and the drug company could reasonably charge $5 million ($100,000 per QALY x 50 QALYs). If, instead, the drug company offered a series of drugs that kept the patient alive for five years, the most it could get under this system would be $500,000.
With those numbers, the economic value of a magic bullet would be staggering. Keeping a magic bullet locked away in a safe would be the worst business model of all time.
How Conspiracy Theories Harm Patients
These conspiracy theories often include a statement that there is a hidden alternative cure for cancer, perhaps related to diet or vitamins. This is also untrue. Click to read an article from a former naturopath debunking many alternative cancer remedies.
The problem is that for many patients who have a curable cancer, the window of time to cure that cancer is not very long. If too much time passes without treatment, the cancer can spread and no longer be curable. If a patient decides to forgo conventional treatment and instead pursues alternative treatments, the cancer can become incurable in that time. There is no going back.
In my experience as a cancer doctor, only a small minority of patients choose to forgo a potentially curative treatment because of beliefs in a conspiracy theory or an alternative cure. But for those who have made that decision, the consequences I have seen have been tragic. In some cases, patients have changed their mind after it became clear that the cancer had grown, wanting to pursue treatment then, but the chance of cure was gone.
These conspiracy theories are not harmless.
What can we do to fight these conspiracy theories? It can be difficult to stamp out fake health information, as we've seen in the battle against false vaccine claims. But one way to start is by standing up for the truth. When we are faced with a claim like one of the ones above, we need to say - or post - that the claim is false and harmful to patients.