Clickbait and Miracle Cures

Another day, another headline, another cure for or cause of cancer. Brown toast causes cancer, turmeric prevents it, apparently (follow the links for a balanced account of these claims).

Thousands of people affected by cancer click the link, wanting to read some rare good news, wanting to gain at least a little control over their or their loved one’s fate.

Knowledge is power, and of course anyone facing a life-threatening illness – and anyone interested in human progress – wants to read about new insights, new discoveries, new hope. With the pharmaceutical industry driven by marketing-for-profit, it is little surprise that people do not necessarily trust the medical establishment and want to look at other options.

Some of the reports are informative and useful. But sadly, much is exaggerated, flimsy and tenuous, fronted up by headlines that function as clickbait.

Well-meaning friends regularly message me tips about cancer-fighting foods. It’s thoughtful of them, and I politely thank them (well, as politely as my notorious autistic bluntness allows). But here’s the thing: healthy eating is healthy eating, cancer or no cancer. Cut down sugars, eat fruit and veg, keep up your vitamins. Sure. Turmeric and spinach taste delicious as well as being packed with the good stuff. Eating the superfoods is good nutritional practice, but it is not a cure for cancer.

Well-meaning becomes dangerous with claims that diet alone can cure cancer – not as a supplement to surgery and adjuvant therapy, but as an alternative.

Take David Wolfe (please), a man who makes himself a social media profile with warm-hearted inspiration-porn memes, but also tries to persuade cancer patients to refuse surgery and other medical treatments and rely instead on raw foods. He’s a pseudo-scientist who spreads quackery to vulnerable people. Little wonder that social media campaign #DontCryWolfe urges people not to share his material online.

Along with the likes of Wolfe, we hear the continual heckle of magic beans and miracle cures that are just not.

The QuackWatch website lists over 120 dubious treatments for cancer, each of which has claimed effectiveness in curing or slowing the disease but without credible scientific evidence. There are those named to sound like proper medicines – such as Antimalignocyt (CH-23), Antineoplastons and Gc-MAF (also called GcMAF) – and those which attribute life-saving powers to Vitamin C, shark cartilage and Wheatgrass.

Claims of miracle cures for cancer – usually with a price tag – are nothing new.

In April 1914, Harry Delvine was convicted of obtaining money by false pretences. He had charged cancer sufferers for treatment with herbal liquids, showing them pigs’ entrails and claiming they were the tumour he had removed.

By the 1930s, there was such a proliferation of quack cancer cures that Parliament passed the 1939 Cancer Act. Although the Act has been revised several times since, with many sections repealed, the section that bans the advertising of cancer treatments and cures to the public is still in force – and it is still used. Trading Standards authorities regularly bring prosecutions, recently against people who have claimed that colloidal silver can cure cancer, maintained that protein shakes and vitamin supplements had cured two patients, and offered distance healing to cure cancer.

Prosecutors have charged not only cranky individuals but also ‘legitimate’ private healthcare companies. In 2009, private company Healthwize UK was fined £2,000 for advertising Ellegic Acid, claiming that it could inhibit the growth of cancer cells. While many people believe that the private healthcare industry suppresses alternative treatments, at least some private companies seem to have spotted an opportunity to make money from people who are attracted to them.  

If your friends tell you that turmeric will cure your cancer, try asking them why the manufacturers and retailers of turmeric don’t make this claim. It is because they would be prosecuted – if not under the Cancer Act, then under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which prohibit “falsely claiming that a product is able to cure illness”.

But is this all a big conspiracy to silence alternative voices? That will be the subject of another post. Keep tuning in.

In the meantime, I am doing what the medics tell me to.

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