Here is one of the most annoying questions asked on the internet – “Is Big Pharma hiding a secret cancer cure just to make bundles of money?” Seriously, I think a see a variation of that question every day on sites like Quora, where people asked intuitive but mostly ridiculous questions to get answers from so-called experts.
Since I end up answering this question every day, I thought maybe I should put down my thoughts in an article here. It will allow me to cut and paste the answer right from here – a true sign of either extreme preparedness or laziness. Maybe both.
It’s clear that a lot of the “secret cancer cure” myths arise in the typical pseudoscience websites. They’re pushing “natural” cures that are 100% effective in “curing” every known cancer with no side effects. What’s the evidence? You just need to trust them.
A quick, oversimplified cancer primer
Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by abnormal cell growth which can invade or metastasize to other tissues and organs. Although people use tumor and cancer interchangeably, not all tumors are cancer. There are benign tumors that do not metastasize and are not cancers.
Cancer usually requires numerous, up to 10, independent genetic mutations in a population of cells before it can become a growing, metastatic cancer. Each mutation is selected, as in natural selection, because it provides some benefit to the cancer cell, such as causing blood vessels to supply the cells for nutrition and oxygen, or the ability to divide rapidly, whatever the feature is.
These mutations aren’t “naturally” a part of the cell’s physiology. Moreover, these mutations can have a lot of different causes – environmental (like smoking or UV radiation), viral (hepatitis B and human papillomavirus are the most famous), heredity, and maybe other things. These mutations are more or less random, and they can’t be prevented by anything special–if only it were that easy.
There are a few things you can do to prevent cancer, such as quitting smoking, staying out of the sun, getting your hepatitis B and HPV vaccinations, not drinking alcohol, keeping a low body weight, and eating a balanced diet.
But even if you are a paragon of healthy living, a random mutation in some cells in your body can lead to cancer. As I have written previously, about 67% of all cancers are simply random mutations. If you assume that your blueberry-kale smoothie will allow you to avoid these random mutations, you’d be wrong.
Your body has over 50 trillion cells each with over 3 billion DNA base pairs. Even if your DNA replication machinery was 99.9999% perfect, and it’s not even close to that accurate, that’s still millions of potential cancer cells that could arise over your lifetime. And there is nothing you can do to get rid of those mutations, certainly not with your gluten-free, non-GMO, organic blueberry-kale smoothies.
One last thing. A lot of our ideas about what may or may not cure cancer is based on preclinical research, which very rarely is brought into clinical trials or is successful in clinical trials. In fact, there seems to be a lot of evidence that it is difficult, if not impossible, to repeat the preclinical studies, so it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to accept the results of them. Simply, a lot of research that is publicly touted often ends up meaning nothing.
One cure to cure them all
The basis of the secret cancer cure myths always seems to rely upon a belief that there is (or will be) one cure for all cancers. This relies upon a complete misunderstanding of cancer.
Basically, cancer is not one disease.
The National Cancer Institute claims that there are over 100 types of cancer. Cancer Research UK states that there are over 200 types of cancer. The American Cancer Society lists over 70 types of cancer (although some are more classes of cancer rather than a single type). Wikipedia lists over 180 different cancers.
Why such a variance in the number? There are several reasons mostly surrounding the lack of precise definitions for some cancers. So researchers may group several different cancers into one heading. But clearly, there are up to 200 or more different cancers.
Furthermore, each of these cancers has different etiologies (causes), pathophysiologies (development), treatments and prognoses. When someone is called a “cancer researcher,” they are rarely studying all cancers, but they’re studying one small part of the story of one of the 200 or so cancers.
When I see a comment such as “sour honey cures cancer,” I almost immediately dismiss it, without really investigating it. Why? Because I know real research, which forms the basis of cancer treatment, would state that “sour honey may be an effective treatment for non-small cell lung cancer.” If I saw that, I might sit up straight, and start reading the article, while looking at the underlying scientific sources.
Of course, since sour honey also includes some very weird Hillary Clinton conspiracy (I kid you not), you know it is nothing.
Big Pharma has the secret cancer cure
Despite the fact that there is no “one cure to cure them all,” because cancer is not one disease, but up to 200 or more different diseases, you will read over and over that evil Big Pharma actually owns this miracle cure. And is hiding it in some secret vault in Greenland, where only Hillary Clinton (since she is hiding THE cancer cure apparently) and the CEO of Merck has the key.
This myth is so easily debunked. First of all, many of these 200 or so cancers can be “cured,” which is a word that is only reluctantly used by real oncologists. I don’t want to list out every cancer’s prognosis for patients, but there are a lot of cancers that have significantly better prognoses over the past decade or so.
The cancer mortality rate has dropped significantly over the past couple of decades. This reduction isn’t because people are consuming blueberry kale smoothies, it’s because Big Pharma and well-trained evidence-based oncologists are able to attack cancer more effectively than they did 10 or 20 years ago.
According to a major study of cancer epidemiology in the USA, the researchers found that the odds of survival increased significantly for many patients aged 50 to 64. For example, patients from this age group diagnosed with colon and rectum cancer from 2005-2009 had a 43 percent lower risk of death, compared with similar patients diagnosed from 1990-1994. Also among the 50-to-64 age group, the reduction in risk of death was 52 percent for breast cancer, 39 percent for liver cancer and 68 percent for prostate cancer in 2005-2009, compared to 1990-1994.
If Hillary Clinton (I just can’t help myself, knowing that a crackpot conspiracy about cancer cures include her) and Big Pharma locked up the secret cancer cure, they must have done a poor job with their mission. On the other hand, if you think that Big Pharma has this secret cancer cure hidden away in a vault, you’re living in some strange world of delusion.
But let’s look at this logically:
- If you’re going to accuse Big Pharma of hiding away this cure because they make such huge profits from their current cancer therapies, your logic is inconsistent (well, that’s a usual accusation against conspiracists). Big Pharma would make boatloads of more money if they really had one cure to cure them all. It would be the most expensive drug ever known if it really worked. And every person, government, health insurance plans (even if the drug cost $100,000, it would be better than long-term cancer treatments), and evil reptilians would want it.
- There is an incorrect assumption that all of Big Pharma marches in sync with each other. They don’t. There are nearly 600 publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, and probably another 10,000 private and start-up companies. They are extraordinarily competitive with one another. If any of them found this mythical secret cancer cure, they would quickly get it into clinical trials (which are public by nature), and that company’s stock price will skyrocket to the moon.
- Speaking of clinical trials. The only way to determine if this mythical cancer cure actually worked would be to set up and run a large clinical trial that included patients with all of the different cancers. These would be everyday people, who are not employees of Big Pharma (well, they could be, but it would mostly be average individuals across the world). And guess what will happen if this drug actually worked? Every single one of them would be posting it on social media.
- Also speaking of clinical trials. They aren’t run by Big Pharma evil witches, they are run by scientists and physicians, most of whom are not employees or under the spell of those witches. Once they saw how effective the drug is, they would demand it for themselves, their loved ones, their friends, or even their pets.
- Scientific research, even in Big Pharma, is not done in a vacuum. It relies upon open presentations at conferences, peer-reviewed publications in respected journals, and interchange of ideas between scientists. This is something that is missing from science deniers – new ideas in science are always subject to scorn and ridicule until actual evidence becomes available. Thus, all of these communication outlets would be sources of information about this mythical cancer cure.
- Most cancer research isn’t done by Big or Little Pharma. It’s done in independent scientific laboratories all across the world, funded by the government, private and charitable financial sources. There would be a bigger chance that this mythical cure would come out of academic research or an organization like the National Institutes of Health than from pharmaceutical companies.
- This conspiracy theory depends on the ridiculous and inane belief that every employee of Big Pharma lacks morals or ethics. Someone would blow the whistle. Maybe because she wants to make sure her dad gets the treatment.
- The final point needs to be emphasized – this mythical cancer cure would make metric boatloads (each metric boatload is approximately equal to 1.473 Imperial boatloads) of cash for the Big Pharma (or, more probably, Little Pharma) company which markets it. It would overwhelm the profits for all of the cancer treatments combined. Sure, I suppose Hillary Clinton would use the billions of dollars she’s hidden with a Nigerian Prince to buy the drug and hide it from the public.
The summary of the secret cancer cure
There is almost no possibility that there will be one cancer cure because there isn’t one cancer, there are probably 200 or more cancers.
There is almost no possibility that Big Pharma is hiding a secret cancer cure in some top-secret vault in a top-secret location in Greenland. (And there is almost no possibility that Hillary Clinton is involved in this secret).
But we do know that numerous cancers are being treated effectively with powerful tools utilized by oncologists. And the mortality rate for all cancers is dropping precipitously as a result.
So, let’s move on. There is not a super-secret cancer cure.
Oh, one more thing. Marijuana does not cure cancer, because that trope is often a part of the whole Big Pharma is hiding the secret cancer cure.
- This article was originally published in September 2017. It has been substantially updated with more current information, copyedited, and reformatted. Nevertheless, Big Pharma is still not hiding the secret cancer cure.
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