One of the more annoying comments from the pseudoscience crowd is that there is a secret cancer cure and Big Pharma is hiding it in a vault somewhere because they make more money from “treating” cancer than curing it. Now anyone who understands anything about cancer and understands how greedy Big Pharma is would know this is the dumbest conspiracy theory since the claim that NASA faked the moon landing.
I love answering questions on Quora because I thoroughly enjoy taking down people who think you can boost your immune system against COVID-19 or that there is a homeopathic potion that will do something. But the question I probably answer every single day is whether Big Pharma is hiding the secret cancer cure, the one cure to cure them all, from all of humanity.
To save me time in the future, I decided to put it all down in one article for the world to read. The simple answer to the question is no. No, there is no secret cancer cure. And no, Big Pharma isn’t hiding it, because if there were such a cure, the one company that had it could essentially ask for Fort Knox to deliver all the gold to Big Pharma headquarters. It would be the mother of all blockbuster drugs.
So let’s take a look at cancer and the secret cancer cure myth. Get a big bowl of popcorn, because this is going to be a long one.
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 tumors 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, 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 help 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, 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 are 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 from these studies. Simply, a lot of research that is publicly touted often ends up meaning nothing.
Busting the secret cancer cure myth
- Cancer is not one disease. “Cancer” is an umbrella term that describes a disease where malignant neoplastic cells that have uncontrolled cellular replication — these cells have an ability to metastasize to other parts of the body. The National Cancer Institute declares 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. And many cancers have several subtypes, so there could be over 1,000 different cancers.
- Each cancer has a different etiology, pathophysiology, treatment, and prognosis. These different cancers are no more related than a broken leg is to a headache. Each type of cancer must be diagnosed properly then a treatment strategy is developed with a highly skilled oncologist. These strategies usually include surgery and adjuvant therapies like chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and radiotherapy.
- There will not be “one cure to cure them all.” Because these hundreds, if not thousands, of different cancers, are all completely different, they require different treatment strategies. One of the surest signs of a pseudoscientific scam is when someone claims that they have a magical cure to cure any cancer.
- Many cancers are, in fact, “cured.” Childhood leukemia was once a death sentence, but now, five-year survival exceeds 90% for some forms. Many other cancers have over 90% five-year survival rates (depending on the type of cancer and timing of diagnosis) – breast, kidney, colon, thyroid, some forms of lymphoma, and many other cancers. In fact, we are winning the war on cancer – the mortality rate from all cancers has dropped by about 25% over the past 20 years.
- Big Pharma markets cancer prevention vaccines right now. Of course, the HPV and hepatitis B vaccines prevent thousands of dangerous and deadly cancers. If they really wanted to make extra money, they’d get rid of those vaccines.
- Big Pharma isn’t one giant, evil corporation. There are nearly 600 publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, and probably another 10-20 thousand other private and start-up biomedical 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. If Company A invented this mythical “one cure to cure them all,” would they care if Company B or Company C produced treatments for a couple of cancers? No. They’d go to market within a nanosecond to make billions of dollars. They would earn more money than all other drugs combined. They don’t give two pieces of equine feces whether Company B or C went bankrupt because of this mythical cure.
- Big profits from this secret cancer cure. 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.
- Cancer treatments are not developed in secret. There are no classified laboratories hidden under the Antarctic ice. The process for drug development is long, arduous, and mostly a failure. It requires collaboration between a large number of scientists from the government, academia, and Big Pharma. Papers would be published in public, easily-accessed peer-reviewed journals. There would be a number of presentations at huge cancer meetings. Everyone would know about this imaginary “cure.”
- Most Big Pharma companies are not American. Much of the secret cancer cure conspiracy is based on the belief that only USA pharmaceutical companies could develop this cure, and because they are evil and in some sort of alliance with everyone in government to hide this secret cancer cure from all of us. This silly claim ignores the fact that many Big Pharma companies are British, Japanese, French, German, Danish, Swedish, Australian, and, well, almost every other country in the world. This means this mythical cancer cure could be developed anywhere by teams of scientists who couldn’t care less about Americans or American pharmaceutical companies.
- This miracle cure needs clinical trials. We wouldn’t know if this mythical cure would work without large clinical trials that include thousands of patients. Do you seriously think that some nefarious Big Pharma exec could keep that a secret? And what about the thousands of employees of this company who would be aware of this mythical cure? Wouldn’t they want it for their family members?
- In the world of social media, the secret cancer cure wouldn’t be secret. Lastly, this conspiracy theory falls completely apart when we think about communication in the modern world – remember, there will be thousands of employees and patients who would know about this miracle cure. Do you think all of them would keep it secret? How many seconds after knowing that they were cured would it take for that patient to Tweet it out to everyone? Or to drop a Facebook update?
The secret cancer cure is not only laughable at the scientific level, but it also is ridiculous when examining it at the corporate profit level. Even if there were a secret cancer cure, and there isn’t one obviously, the company that actually had it would make so much money from it that they would end up the largest corporation in the world. That might be scarier!
We are beating cancer
I cannot stress this enough. We are winning the war on cancer, period, end of the story. We might not need this secret cancer cure because real science is doing a great job of defeating it.
As I said before, the cancer mortality rate has dropped significantly over the past couple of decades. This reduction isn’t because people are consuming 10 liters of blueberry-kale smoothies every day, 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 colorectal 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.
So, we’re doing a great job beating cancer without this mythical secret cancer cure.
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 beneath the melting ice cap covering Greenland.
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.
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.
Let me repeat myself. There is not a secret cancer cure being hidden by evil Big Pharma executives. They may be evil, but they are not stupid, they will love the profits of this miracle.
Oh, one more thing. Marijuana does not cure cancer. I need to say this because it’s often intertwined in the “Big Pharma is hiding the secret cancer cure” conspiracy.
- Tomlinson I, Sasieni P, Bodmer W. How many mutations in a cancer? Am J Pathol. 2002 Mar;160(3):755-8. PubMed PMID: 11891172; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC1867158.
- 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.
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