James C. Coyne Ph.D.

The Skeptical Sleuth

A Skeptical Look at Claims About a Miraculous Cancer Treatment

Consumers can recognize familiar storylines in claims for miracle cancer cures.

Posted Jul 14, 2011

Dubious statements on the Psychology Today blog post about miraculous treatments for cancer without side effects! Why, of all places, were they placed on the Psychology Today Blog? How does this content fit with the purposes of the blog? What impact  will these statements have on the credibility of the hundreds of bloggers who post there? Will they influencethe treatment seeking of vulnerable cancer patients?

"Tell me that it ain't so!" Cancer patients are desperate to hear that there is still hope when they been told there is none. They are desperate to believe that there is treatment that has not been tried that will not make them sicker and exhausted. This is especially true of patients who have just been given the bad news that their prognosis is not good or that they must commit themselves to a course of toxic chemotherapy and radiation. For patients who are diagnosed with ovarian or pancreatic cancer, the diagnosis of cancer and the poor prognosis can come out of the blue, when they were not feeling particularly unhealthy. In times like these, cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to quacks and hucksters.

Bombarded with nonsense about miracle cures with no side effects, will cancer patients be motivated to abandon treatments that are effective but that nonetheless have devastating side effects? Will they turn instead to treatments that are useless but that at least lack such side effects? Will patients who sadly need to abandon any hope of effective cancer treatment and concentrate on relief of pain and suffering and come to terms with the impending end of their lives be drawn to expensive but ultimately futile treatments?

Fighting Cancer with Science and Nature is seriously misleading and potentially harmful. I am going to talk back to the blog and its blogger, Christopher Lane in two Cross Talk responses. My first Cross Talk will illustrate how to exercise skepticism in examinin claims about unproven treatments to cancer in terms of recognizing the narrative or story form they often take. What kinds of features should arouse our skepticism about treatments or cures for cancer? My second Cross Talk post will offer detailed critique of Christopher Lane and his claims.

Christopher Lane does not explicitly endorse unproven treatment for cancer but he comes close in expressing great enthusiasm for one. And he provides links to dubious websites where stronger claims are made for their miraculous effectiveness in curing cancer.

After a crackdown by the Federal Trade Commission a few years ago, websites advocating particular treatments are wise to be separated from websites offering them for sale. The reason is that serious fines were levied against websites that offered treatments for sale with dubious claims of their effectiveness. So, separate sites now offer claims and products for sale, often with web links take vulnerable persons from one site to another, much the way drug dealers operate in teams where one dealer asks a prospective buyer if he wants drugs, another takes the money, and yet another passes the drugs to the buyer.

What is the narrative form to look for when one suspects dubious claims about cancer treatments? What story can we expect to be spun?

1. Claims about the cancer treatment being promoted as being "natural". Being "natural" is not necessarily either safer nor more effective. Moreover, a number of accepted, proven treatments for cancer are derived from natural products, whereas others are fully synthetic. Their origins really don't matter, it is their proven safety and effectiveness that counts.

2. Suspicions being raised about the National Cancer Institute or FDA being involved in some sort of suppression of information about the powers of the cancer treatment being promoted or rejection of compelling evidence of its effectiveness. Sometimes there is a paranoid element of conspiracy present: "They are withholding this information from you."

3. References to traditional healers in exotic cultures curing cancer patients with this treatment.

4. Anecdotes describing sudden and miraculous cures, especially for patients for whom conventional treatments have failed or who have been declared hopeless or terminal.

5. Lack of any suggestion that cancer patients take the information to their oncologists or other qualified health professionals before deciding to act on it. Quacks try to isolate their victims from opportunities to discuss their claims with professionals.

6. Lack of any links to reputable sources of information about cancer treatments such as the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, or  the most frequently visited cancer website in the world, Oncolink.

7. Links to sites with seemingly very similar names but for which it is difficult or impossible to get independent evaluation of the credibility. Hmm, the US Cancer Center sounds prestigious and has a ring of familiarity about it, but just try to track it down with a Google search.

Okay! Armed with these clues I urge the reader to examine Christopher Lane's Fighting Cancer with Science and Nature. Are they a useful guide to what you find there? It would be a good idea to check before you read my next Cross Talk posting.