I hang around Quora, where people ask questions about just about anything, hoping experts will answer. I’ve ended up focusing on vaccine (of course) and cancer questions, both of which are so frustrating. The most annoying question that I answer is a form of the old trope “Is Big Pharma hiding a secret cancer cure just to make tons of money?” Seriously, I think a see a variation of that question every day.
Since I end up answering this question every day, I thought maybe I should put down my thoughts in an article here. Maybe some of you can find it useful.
It’s clear that a lot of the “secret cancer cure” myths arise in the pseudoscience websites. They’re pushing “natural” cures that are 100% effective in “curing” every known cancer with no side effects. What’s the vidence? 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 cell in your body can lead to cancer.
One last thing. A lot of our ideas about what may or may not cure cancer is based on preclinical research, that 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 have 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,” where Hillary Clinton (really?) and Big Pharma are hiding this amazing cure, I almost immediately dismiss it out of hand. 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, I immediately ignore any article that puts Hillary Clinton at the center of some outlandish conspiracy theory.
Big Pharma has the secret cancer cure
Despite the fact that there is not “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 and the CEO of Merck have 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 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.
Firstly, 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.
Secondly, 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 2000 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.
Thirdly, if there really were a secret cancer cure, that means a lot of people would be in on the secret. And in today’s world of social media, what makes any logical person (again, not a quality of the pseudoscience pushing conspiracist) think that it would be hidden from the public? Scientific research, even in Big Pharma, is based on sharing data at conferences, publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and an interchange of ideas between scientists. Any one of these outlets would be releasing this secret cancer cure in a second.
Lastly, most cancer research isn’t done by Big or Little Pharma. It’s done in independent scientific laboratories all across the world, funded by 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.
The summary about the secret cancer cure
There is almost no possibility that there will be one cancer cure, because there isn’t one cancer, there are up to 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.
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- Zeng C, Wen W, Morgans AK, Pao W, Shu XO, Zheng W. Disparities by Race, Age, and Sex in the Improvement of Survival for Major Cancers: Results From the National Cancer Institute Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program in the United States, 1990 to 2010. JAMA Oncol. 2015 Apr;1(1):88-96. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2014.161. PubMed PMID: 26182310; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4523124.