Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter
Skip to main content
Donate

Let's beat cancer sooner

Glass bottle of elixir

"Miracle cures" usually do more harm than good

At Cancer Research UK, we’re often asked about alleged “miracle cures” for cancer, usually based on claims made on the internet. There’s an impressive list of these collected on the Quackwatch website (here and here), ranging from the slightly wacky to the downright dangerous.

In virtually all cases, when researchers have rigorously tested these treatments, they don’t work. But the rumours persist, fuelling the belief that there is a “conspiracy” preventing cancer patients from getting effective treatments.

Not only is this simply not true – just because something doesn’t actually work, it doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy against it – it’s harmful to cancer patients. And, as we’ve found out whilst digging through our archives, it’s also not a new idea.

Here’s an example from 1907, from the Annual Report of Cancer Research UK’s precursor, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund:

“Serious attention has been given to the additional alleged cancer cures which have been brought to our notice during the past year. Unfortunately it is impossible to assign a curative value to any of them.”

The report goes on to describe an “alleged remedy” trypsin, which through rigorous lab research, is shown to be “incapable of influencing the progressive growth of tumours”. In other words, despite popular claims to the contrary at the time, it simply didn’t work.

History repeating

Positive cure for cancer advertisementAlthough the internet didn’t exist at the turn of the 20th century, the mass media still had a major role in fuelling claims about cancer cures, as highlighted in a 1904 paper in the British Medical Journal written by D’Arcy Power entitled “Notes on an ineffectual treatment of cancer”.  Power notes:

“Dr. Harold Johnson’s account of Dr. Otto Schmidt’s work appeared in the Lancet for November 14th, 1903, p. 1374, under the title ‘Dr. Otto Schmidt’s Specific Treatment of Cancer’ and his paper gained a somewhat wider circulation than was intended, as a long abstract appeared in the Daily Mail.”

Sound familiar?

In order to quell some of the wilder rumours, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s scientists analysed a number of the “cancer cures” that were being peddled at the time, publishing their findings in the British Medical Journal in 1906:

“A very slight acquaintance with the advertisements of quack medicines which are so abundant in newspapers and periodicals is enough to show that a knowledge of the causes of the diseases for which a cure is promised is in no wise necessary for the composition of either the medicine or the advertisement; in fact, it is impossible to believe that the extravagant claims and absurd statements made could be put forward by persons having a knowledge of the subject.

It is no matter for surprise, therefore, that in the case of the least understood and least successfully combated of diseases many proprietary “remedies” are put forward.”

The article then goes on to describe the analysis of one such ‘remedy’ in demand at the time, which turns out to be nothing more that diluted alcohol. The writers add:

“The cost of the ‘medicine’ we are now dealing with is of course considerably greater than the cost of plain water, but this fact will be but small consolation to the victim who derives as little benefit from the one as the other.”

Their words still resonate more than a hundred years later, given the huge number of “miracle cures” that spring up on the web, promising much but delivering nothing but shattered hopes and empty wallets.

Cancer, credulity and quackery

One hundred years ago, there were very few effective treatments for cancer, save for the surgeon’s scalpel. As a result, homespun cancer cures thrived, with all manner of pills and potions being peddled in newspapers and magazines.

In 1911, Ernest Bashford, director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s research lab, published a hefty paper in the British Medical Journal, entitled “Cancer, credulity and quackery”.

It’s available as a freely downloadable pdf, and is well worth a read, if only to compare how much progress has been made in treating cancer through modern medicine since that time and how little the claims and methods of quacks have changed.

In particular, Bashford highlights the reluctance of the inventors of these “cures” to submit their creations to rigorous scientific examination, and attempts to blind the public with pseudoscientific jargon. Another recurring theme is the refusal to believe that there is nothing more the medical profession can do to help a person with inoperable cancer, and that they must be ‘hiding’ the cure.

He cites the example of “The Evolution of the Cancer Cell” – a booklet produced by a Dr Robert Bell who claimed to be able to cure the disease. Bashford writes:

“The pages from which I quote contain a jumble of words – irrelevant chatter, as it seems to me – in which milk, nuclein, the thyroid gland, pork, butcher’s meat, constipation, menstruation, platform experience and contaminated blood jostle one another without reason; with the throwing-in of a biblical quotation and repeated dwelling upon the natural dread of the knife, and appeal to all human frailties is completed.”

Bashford also discusses the relatively poor understanding of cancer at the time, which made it difficult to diagnose the disease correctly, providing an environment for quackery to flourish.

Today we have an intimate knowledge of cancer and sophisticated diagnostic techniques, from molecular tests to CT scans. But a century ago, cancer diagnosis was much more hit and miss. Data from the early 1900s show that up to 10 per cent of cancers were misdiagnosed (i.e. they weren’t actually cancer). According to Bashford:

“…thus is provided an annual crop of cases of reputed cancer more than adequate to account for all the “cures” claimed by all the quacks and cancer curers on the basis of the diagnoses of “inoperable cancer” by eminent surgeons or by hospital authorities.”

Burnside's Purifico advertisementAgainst this backdrop of ignorance and fear – and a medical profession just starting to find its feet – fake “cures” flourished. It’s easy to see how this culture has persisted through the years, despite the measurable progress in treating cancer by conventional medicine.

Although we still have a long way to go before we’ve beaten this terrible disease, survival rates are rising year on year, and many thousands of children and adults are alive today thanks to advances in surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

There is no conspiracy

Although the 1939 Cancer Act was brought in to try to stop the advertisement of fraudulent cancer cures to the general public in the UK, it has little jurisdiction in today’s international online world, where thousands of websites peddling quack cures are available at the click of a button.

It doesn’t matter how many unverified anecdotes pop up in the press or on the internet – if a treatment doesn’t hold up when subjected to rigorous scientific investigation, it doesn’t mean there’s a “conspiracy” to stop it. It means it doesn’t work.

For more than a century, scientists around the world have tried, tested and tweaked hundreds of ways to treat cancer. Some of them have worked – many more haven’t.

But scientists don’t claim that there’s a conspiracy to suppress their “miracle cure” when their investigations show that something doesn’t work to treat cancer. Instead, they apply the scientific method as it should be done – forming an idea, rigorously testing it, and seeing if it holds up.

If it works, then patients will benefit, as they do from the hundreds of effective treatments that have led to survival from cancer doubling over the past 30 years.  If it doesn’t work, it means that their idea was wrong and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Sometimes things just don’t work. Bright ideas can turn out to be wrong, or researchers find out that things are rather more complicated than they first anticipated.

To suggest that there is a conspiracy aimed at depriving cancer sufferers of effective treatments is not only absurd, it’s offensive to the global community of dedicated scientists, to the staff and supporters of cancer research organisations such as Cancer Research UK, and – most importantly – to cancer patients and their loved ones.

We have all lost friends and family to cancer. And our loss fuels our passion to beat this disease by finding out what really works, through scientific research.

Kat

References:

Bashford EF (1911). CANCER, CREDULITY, AND QUACKERY. British medical journal, 1 (2630), 1221-30 PMID: 20765638

Imperial Cancer Research Fund (1907). IMPERIAL CANCER RESEARCH FUND. British medical journal, 2 (2427), 26-9 PMID: 20763346

Power D (1904). Notes on an Ineffectual Treatment of Cancer: Being a Record of Three Cases Injected with Dr. Otto Schmidt’s Serum. British medical journal, 1 (2249), 299-302 PMID: 20761353

No authors listed (1906). THE COMPOSITION OF SOME CANCER “REMEDIES.”. British medical journal, 1 (2369) PMID: 20762692

Share this article

Comments

Josephine Jones December 3, 2011

I think this a great post and the opinions expressed in some of the above comments demonstrate exactly the problem we have.

The persistence of the ‘conspiracy’ myth is a convenient excuse for quacks when they are found to be breaking the law.

John Smith October 25, 2011

It’s so encouraging to see how many people are starting to wake up to reality of the cancer industry. You can fool some people all of the time and everybody some of the time but you cannot fool everybody all of the time!

Peter Reynolds August 31, 2011

Dr Morgan, if your terms of abuse are “lunatic fringe” and “deluded” what offensive remarks would you like me to make about you? Quack? Big Pharma Apologist?

I understand evidence very well thank you but I am not compelled by orthodoxy or complacency to edit out everything except what complioes with my own prejudice.

I don’t know anything about antineoplastons but I do know about the endocannabinoid system and the established fact that phytocannabinoids induce apoptosis in leukemic cells. I also know that research and trials into the use of cananbis as medicine is being stymied by Big Pharma and prohibitionist politicians.

In the USA there are many passionate advocates of what they call medical marijuana and day by day, peer reviewed research and physician documented anecdotal evidence is lending weight to its efficacy.

The US and UK governments have an hysterical aversion to the truth about medicinal cananbis, matched only by their hypocrisy when conspiring with Big Pharma to seek out patentable versions. I have no doubt that this disinformation campaign extends to Cancer Research UK and similar charities. I can tell you for a fact that both the MS Society and the MS Trust have been dissuaded from supporting cannabis as medicine despite overwhelming medicine.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. All my experience of life tells me that “cock-up” is more common than “conspiracy” but in this instance there are undoubtedly self-serving and malevolent forces at work.

Paul Morgan (@drpaulmorgan) August 31, 2011

Disappointed – but not surprised – to see the lunatic fringe element posting their deluded “Big Pharma Conspiracy” nonsense. It would appear that they cannot or will not understand evidence. As Cancer Research is a charity, what use would it be for them to suppress the findings of trials, both positive and negative? And then we get the ridiculous posting regarding Burzynski and his antineoplastons! Clearly, Madeline is either unaware, or is choosing to ignore, the basic facts concerning this avenue of research. None of the antineoplastons have progressed beyond Phase II trials, despite running for far longer than other comparable trials of cancer therapies. They have also struggled to recruit to their trials, participation in which will cost the patient tens of thousands of dollars. A “PubMed” search for “Burzynski antineoplaston” lists 37 entries. The last publication was 2006. None are phase III trials, several are only letters or case reports. Searching “antineoplaston” lists 83 publications – duplicating the previous search, more case reports, mostly laboratory studies. Thus, despite what appears to be many years of research into a promising line of anti-cancer therapy, it seems that another blind alley has been entered. There is certainly insufficient evidence to recommend such experimental therapy. If antineoplastons were a useful strategy in anti-cancer therapy, I would have expected to see something more meaningful in the literature after many years of research into this area. However, the inevitable conclusion that we can draw from the evidence is that antineoplastons are not of use as anti-cancer therapy.

Simon August 13, 2011

Hi all,

I apologise for the last post. It was a little childish. I do feel quite strongly about the state of cancer treatment. I know thousands of people dedicate their lives to creating new treatments and cures. I have the utmost respect for them. I would just like to see more attention given to other treatment paradigms, that are all too often labelled as ‘snake oil’ peddling and ‘quakery’, without just cause.

Simon August 13, 2011

I’ve just read this. The deception generated by CR UK is laughably transparent.

I have a friend, who has been treating cancer for 10 years, and has accrued hundreds of testimonials. He took the technology that he is using, to a Cancer research uk representative. It transpired that, CR were not interested in the methodology being used, because it wasn’t a drug.

Kat Arney July 6, 2011

Thanks for your comment Peter.

The issues around what pharmaceutical companies chose to invest in are complex. However, it’s not the case that ‘unpatentable’ cancer drugs or treatments are suppressed by the pharmaceutical industry.

For example, the drug aspirin has been out of patent for many years, yet it is currently being investigated in clinical trials for preventing cancer – experts believe this humble (and cheap!) drug could significantly cut cancer rates (see This blog post for more information).

Although the system isn’t perfect – and there are certainly issues around drug pricing and availability that we are actively campaigning on – pharmaceutical companies are necessary for the large-scale testing and manufacture of safe and effective cancer drugs.

There are ways that companies can patent pre-existing or reformulated compounds if they show genuine promise, so they can invest in making them available to cancer patients (information available from the Intellectual Property Office here). And Cancer Research UK also works to secure rights to investigate and market out-of-patent drugs that could benefit patients, such as the example of fenretinide for childhood cancer.

If any of the ‘miracle’ cures for cancer showed genuine, reproducible benefit for patients, they would be jumped on by doctors and scientists who are desperate to find better ways to treat the hundreds of thousands of people who are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK. The fact that they are not speaks volumes.

Kat Arney, Science Communications

Peter Reynolds July 6, 2011

A robust defence and of course there is quackery and there are snake oil salesmen.

However, this isn’t the whole story. Big Pharma is one enormous vested interest, which spends more on political lobbying than any other group or industry. If it can’t patent a medicine then it will do all it can to discredit it and snuff it out. If there’s no possibility of a patent, then there’s no funding for research.

So while there is truth in what you say, there is also deception and “conspiracy” focused against remedies that do show promise.